BELLVILLE — Austin Lawrence jumped in the air. His sneakers smacked the floor as he landed, sending an echo through the middle school gym. He tossed his baseball in an upward arc while a trio of softball players cheered him on. Lawrence clutched his hands to his heart. A huge smile creased his face.
The 9-year-old smiled for almost two hours straight during Monday night’s baseball clinic at Clear Fork High School.
“He loves it," said Rachel Lawrence, Austin's mother. "It’s amazing to watch him. He doesn’t get many opportunities like this, so he soaks it all up.”
Unstoppable Youth Sports is a league for children with special needs. Students from Clear Fork High School helped the Unstoppables prepare for their upcoming season with a mini clinic Monday night.
@sourcemediaprops Baseball and softball players from Clear Fork High School hosted Unstoppable Youth Sports for a mini clinic this week. Visit RichlandSource.com for the full story. #unstoppables #unstoppableyouthsports #specialneeds #inclusion #youthsports #baseball #softball #fyp #foryoupage #localnews #goodnews #clearfork #sia ♬ NOTHING - Westover
High schoolers walked players through the basics of catching, throwing, batting and sliding. The clinic was a joint effort between the school's varsity baseball team, softball teams, student council and Project Support, a club for high school students who assist their peers with special needs during the school day.
Melissa Kodger suggested the clinic as a spring activity for student council.
Kodger said the some of the students' interactions with the Unstoppables were a bit awkward at first, but they quickly became fast friends.
"It warms the heart because eventually that awkward wears off and they just interact with the kids like they would anybody else," said Kodger, a high school science teacher and co-advisor for student council.
"That's what you want to see for inclusion.”
Junior Macy Ousley said she enjoyed the quick bonds she formed with her players.
“The laughter and the joy that these kids have, it’s so fun," Ousley said.
Junior Kasey Swank said he watched his two players, brothers Elijah and Gabe, become more confident over the course of the evening.
"They got more comfortable and that's when they really showed what they could do," he said. “I enjoyed it quite a bit. It really opened my eyes.”
Unstoppables was founded in 2018 by Lindsay and Laura Roberts, a Bellville couple raising two sons with autism. It started as a baseball league, but has since expanded to include basketball and soccer.
Lindsay said the goal of the league is to allow all children the chance to play sports in an accepting, barrier-free environment. Unlike many athletics programs for special needs children, Unstoppables teams compete against typically-developing peers.
“We play against anybody that will play us, whether it’s rec teams, travel teams, girls, boys, high school, junior high," Lindsay said. "We even have a parent versus kids game sometimes if we need to fill in a spot.”
During games and practices, each player is paired with a volunteer so parents can sit back and enjoy watching their child play.
“It's a good feeling to be able to see your child be out there," said Brittany Morgan. "Regardless of the sport that you choose, just to be able to see your child being included in typical things."
Morgan's son Jaidyn is 6 years old. He's starting his second season in Unstoppables baseball.
According to its website, Unstoppables serves almost 100 kids across multiple counties. This year, the league will have baseball teams based in Lexington, Bellville, Marengo and Fredericktown. Each team is set to play eight games over the course of May and June.
The Lawrence family drove from Marion to Bellville for Monday's clinic. Austin will play on the Marengo team.
"A friend of ours is doing it so we thought we'd give it a try," Rachel said. "(Austin) has fallen in love with it.”
Roberts said its not uncommon for families to travel across counties to play with the Unstoppables.
“We have kids coming as far down as Columbus and (as far north as) Medina," she said. “This is all the kids have sometimes.”
Roberts said she was excited when the school reached out to her about hosting a clinic.
"We usually reach out to the schools to get some involvement but Clear Fork reached out to us," she said.
“I think people are starting to see, it’s not just about giving kids an opportunity to play baseball. It’s about integrating kids into the community and being seen. We just use sports to do that.”
Participation in Unstoppables Youth Sports is free for players and families thanks to community donations. Clear Fork students recently raised $300 for the Unstoppable Youth League through a penny war. Donations will also be collected during Thursday's baseball and softball game against Shelby.