‘Field of Dreams’ becomes a reality
Story by Kevin Shaffstall, Director, Pryor Leadership Studies Program
When the students of the class of 2005 Pryor Leadership class started their Senior Legacy Project, they started literally with a blank slate and the burning question of how they could make a difference in their community.
Each year the senior Legacy Class of the Pryor Leadership Studies Program is challenged to find a way to leave a lasting legacy to their community. Community can be defined as William Jewell College, Liberty, Kansas City, the state, nation or world. The first Legacy Project of the Pryor Leadership program was in 1986 and consisted of a covered nature observatory platform at Martha LaFite Thompson Nature Sanctuary in Liberty.
The Pryor Leadership class of 2005 was one of the very first users of the new Jewell Round Table as a primer and brainstorming tool. By using this new technology two weeks prior to the start of their actual class, the students were able to share individual ideas and visions about what they thought would be an excellent legacy project which would make a deep impact on the community. At the start of this process the funnel was pretty large with many good ideas championed by every student. In the selection process the students were forced to make some tough choices and decide not only the impact of the project but the feasibility of pulling off this kind of project in 14 weeks.
Some of the considerations that go into the feasibility study is how will this project go on into perpetuity and how does this project truly make our community a better place. The students present their projects to class and then they have to narrow down their possible choices to three projects. After three projects are chosen the students break into teams to research the three options, develop a plan of action, and return a week later to class to present their findings.
For the class of 2005 the final three options were:
1. Tall Grass Prairie Restoration at Watkins Mill State Park
2. The relocation and revitalization of a displaced local food pantry and
3. Children with Disabilities.
Senior Nathan Baker had spent the past year working in the Independence School District in an adaptive physical education program for special needs children. Nathan also had seen a television special on HBO about baseball fields for children with disabilities. Nathan and his research team presented the idea for a synthetic baseball field to be built in Kansas City and preferably in the Northland. The field would be custom designed using a synthetic surface. This surface would accommodate wheelchairs and other assistive devices while also helping to prevent injuries and lost games due to weather. Nathan’s team discovered that there were over 30,000 kids in the greater Kansas City metro area who had a mental or physical disability. They also discovered that no field of this type existed in all of the Midwest.
They realized that this project represented more than just playing the game of baseball: it would be about making new friends, building self-esteem and having disabled children be treated like other kids. A “buddy” system would pair each player with an able-bodied peer, resulting in a close bond that cannot be described. The class voted for the baseball field for children with disabilities as their top project.
As the class started their initial planning for the Legacy Project, they broke into teams to work on different aspects of the project, including Fundraising, Field and Site Acquisition, PR and Media, and Logistics. Early on the students realized they would need numerous strategic partnerships to make this dream become a reality. In regards to fundraising the students were told that the first rule of fundraising was that you must first give yourself; whatever funds contributed collectively as a class would be matched by Kevin and his wife Teresa. The class contribution was right at $2000.
The students contacted every municipality and parks and recreation department in the greater Kansas City area about possible field sites, and four different municipalities expressed interest in the project. The students also knew that a legacy project must go on into perpetuity and that they would have to find a strong sustainable partner with a background in working with special needs children that would agree to manage the project into the future.
YMCA of Greater Kansas City CEO Gene Dooley was contacted to inquire about the Y’s interest in being a strategic partner. Gene, who had worked with Jewell on other projects, was very positive and suggested that one of the students follow-up with his Vice-President of Sports Development Michelle Ford to start the due diligence phase of the project. Student Amber Blahut made the call to Michelle and the process was started.
After several meetings between the students and the YMCA representatives a draft of the terms of the relationship was drawn up that had to be voted upon by the Greater Kansas City YMCA board of directors. As the students were assessing the offers of the different municipalities and waiting for the Y decision they started doing presentations around the city to every civic group that would put them on their schedule.
During one presentation to the parents of the underclassmen in the Pryor Leadership program, a pivotal relationship was struck with Jewell alums Fred and Shirley Pryor. The Pryors were moved by the presentation of the students from the program they had endowed 12 years earlier. They also have a granddaughter with Cerebral Palsy, and thus knew personally of the need for this kind of program. The Pryors made an initial pledge of $100,000 to the students to get the project rolling. This initial large gift was a huge boost for the students’ confidence and morale. Following the Pryors’ gift, an in-kind donation of concrete for the field from Bill Geiger, chairman/CEO of Geiger Ready Mix Co., helped the students see that community members would want to get behind this kind of endeavor.
Another critical decision facing the students was which already established organization that had baseball programs for children with disabilities would be adopted as their model of play. Eventually, they chose Challenger, a special division of Little League Baseball from Williamsport, PA.
In April of 2005 the YMCA board of directors voted to donate a $400,000, 8-acre piece of land at the intersection of 152 Highway and Barry Road in the Northland to the project. Along with the land they agreed to be the contractors of the development and the managers of the Challenger League when it was established. This was significant to the class because the students knew that the project would be sustainable because of the excellent reputation and services of the Greater Kansas City YMCA.
As the project unfolded the students’ dream went beyond the specialty field for children to a whole complex that would include concessions, a pavilion and bathroom facility for kids with special needs, accessible parking, and additional fields for able-bodied children. The additional fields were important because this would allow the Challenger kids to play at the same park with their siblings and neighbor kids. This would help to normalize the experience for the Challenger kids and make them feel included.
With these additions the price tag went to over 1.1 million dollars for the entire project. At this point in time the students began to hear from many skeptics in the community including professional fundraisers who said that there was no way a group of college students—no matter how well intentioned—was going to raise this kind of money, and that the students should go after something less ambitious. This discouragement from the outside ended up being a great motivating factor for the students. One of the strongest assets of these students is that they don’t know the “truth,” and they don’t care about politics. All they were focused on was the cause and helping disabled children.
As the semester wore on the students continued to champion their cause to whoever would listen. The students also realized that upon graduation their four initial goals of finding a strategic partner, establishing a buddy system, securing a field, and raising the necessary funds would only be 75% complete. The students also understood that failure was not an option, and that they would have to find a way after commencement to make the project a reality by raising additional money, because they weren’t going to let these kids down.
As the summer following graduation rolled around, representatives of Jewell and the class, YMCA staff and a few community volunteers formed a Challenger Advisory Board that would meet weekly at the YMCA of Greater Kansas City to plan, fundraise and build awareness. Those first few months after graduation were tough as many things changed, from the availability of everyone in the class to meet to wavering commitments of some previous partners. After graduation student Mark Moberly took on the role as point person for the class and would act in the role of project director until the money was raised and an official hand-off of the project was made to the YMCA.
The project made significant strides in the late summer of 2005 when the Challenger Advisory Board met with Dan Glass, Penny Glass and Betty Kaegel of the Kansas City Royals Charities. The Glasses and Betty were aware of the legacy project from contact they had previously with Pryor Leadership student Ryan Harwell. They had always been passionate about Challenger but wanted to really know the students’ commitment and strategic plan before involving Royals Charities. After that first meeting the Kansas City Royals were sold and agreed to come on board as a full partner with Challenger. This helped immensely because the Royals added credibility to the project, along with their expertise, network, and support with fundraising.
Another big breakthrough for the summer of 2005 was a meeting the Challenger Advisory Board had with Daniel Velte, Director of League Development for Little League Baseball of the USA. The national office of Little League had heard about the Jewell Pryor Legacy story and Daniel wanted to meet with the students first hand and find out about how they were making this legacy a reality. Little League, the nation’s oldest youth sports organization, had never had a group of college students take on the initiative of starting a league of any kind. Little League baseball is a worldwide game played by more than 200,000 teams in all 50 states and 80 countries. Daniel was impressed and pledged Little League Baseball’s support for the project along with $5,000 of seed money to help get things started.
As the 2005-06 school year started, several big promotional campaigns and fundraisers were planned for the year. Additionally, other Jewell groups were asked to support the initiative and the WJC SIFE team helped with the design of a new KC Challenger Logo developed by WJC senior Aaron Mays. The SIFE team also worked with Matt Brillhart, Pryor Director of Community Leadership Programming, in developing marketing materials and a web-site.
The Royals hosted a kick-off and media awareness event at Royals Stadium in October. The event was covered by three television stations, the Kansas City Star, and four other local papers. Interviews were held with Pryor students, Fred and Shirley Pryor, staff of the YMCA, Royals Charities and players, representatives of Little League Baseball of the USA, and kids who would be playing in the Challenger Division. Kansas City Royals 3rd baseman Mark Teahen agreed to be the Royals’ player spokesperson for Challenger.
Throughout the fall of 05 as the students were canvassing the town making presentations about Challenger to almost anyone who would listen, the dollars started to come in. Scott Barnhard, Director of Development for the YMCA, with the assistance of William Jewell College-Nonprofit Leadership student Beth Millas, began pitching the project to larger foundations and YMCA donors. This endeavor was pivotal because from the start of the legacy project one of the key goals was for the students to start the project, raise the funds and awareness and then handoff the operations and ongoing management of the Challenger League to the YMCA of Greater Kansas City.
As word spread about the program, Jerry Lafferty, baseball scout for the Philadelphia Phillies and a Northland resident, recruited 12 other major league scouts from different teams to host a fundraiser baseball camp at the William Jewell College Mabee Center in January 2006. The William Jewell College baseball team and head coach Mike Stockton joined with Jerry and the major league scouts to offer a first-class baseball camp for about 50 area middle school and high school players. All of the proceeds from the camp went directly to Challenger.
In the spring of 2006 the Challenger Advisory Board and the YMCA Sports Development Division started recruiting parents and kids to begin fielding teams for a developmental Challenger league to be in place for the summer of 2006. This would allow the kids to have an experience practicing, playing and learning the rules of baseball before they took the field on the new synthetic field in for the summer of 2007. Two leagues were formed, one playing in Overland Park at the Jewish Community Center and the other in Parkville at Bill Grigsby Field. The games were under the direction of the YMCA sports staff and each league had about 35 children involved. Buddies for the kids in the newly formed league were made up of volunteer community members and students in the Pryor Leadership program.
During one weekend game in July where both the South and North Divisions of Challenger got together to play at Grigsby Field, Fred and Shirley Pryor were Challenger Buddies and in attendance for the game. As buddies they felt the power of the program and the value of the experience for the kids, but also realized that the wet dirt and grass field the kids were playing on was less than optimal for children in wheelchairs and on crutches.
After the first game the Pryors went for a walk along the Missouri River in the adjacent park. They returned with a decision to give an additional $400,000 to the gift of $100,000 they had already made to ensure the park was ready for the 2007 baseball season. The YMCA decided in turn to honor the Pryors’ commitment by naming the park the Fred and Shirley Pryor Sports Complex.
Since that time other foundations and community groups have jumped on board. Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Trent Green and his wife Julie have agreed to give $125,000 from their foundation. The Garth Brooks foundation Teammates for Kids agreed to give $25,000 to Kansas City Challenger. The Kansas City Royals gave all of their proceeds from their annual Blues and BBQ event to Challenger. The Blues and BBQ event included both a live and silent auction which raised over $150,000. Two weeks following the Blues and BBQ event, the Royals treated all of the kids from the Challenger League to a night a the K where the kids got to play at the Little K before the Major Leaguers took the field to play the Milwaukee Brewers.
Starting with the initial concept, idea, and a gift of $2,000 from the students in the Pryor Leadership Studies program, more than $1.2 million has been raised to build this most special field of dreams in the Northland for children with disabilities.
The future for this project includes the opening of the new Fred and Shirley Pryor Sports Complex in the spring of 07 and the expansion of the leagues to include over 500 metro area youth. In addition the goal is to form leagues for adults with disabilities in the future and add additional Challenger synthetic field parks in South Kansas City. Down the road there are plans to host a ‘baseball jamboree” for Challenger where kids from around the world come to Kansas City to play baseball over a 10-day period. The “Jamboree” in Williamsport has over 900 teams from across the globe show up to play prior to the Little League World Series.
I like to think of the Challenger project as a “Legacy of Make Believe,” because every time you see a game being played by the special needs kids of Challenger it makes a believer of you. You will believe more deeply in the indelible human spirit to overcome adversity, and the challenges you face each day don’t seem so large. You also will believe that a truly committed few—working together for one common cause—can make a difference in our world.