Brown’s buddy system: Challenger founder loves making new impact every season
Grown men, tough-guy coaches, are reduced to tears.
High school and college athletes let down their guard and realize just how lucky they are.
Special-needs children laugh and smile and have buddies for life.
All because of a little karma — Carma Brown — and the Challenger baseball program.
In the mid-1990s, Rick Topper and Bill Rohr got together and decided to try to include special-needs children in a baseball game. Associated Builders and Contractors donated the work to make a dugout at Monument Little League wheelchair-accessible, and had nine children ready to play.
The Little Leagues around town were asked to provide “buddies” to help the players play the game.
Brown was the representative for the Minor Boys division at Grand Mesa and quickly agreed. She showed up to the game with a couple of buddies. Turns out, they were the only ones who showed. The experiment seemed to be over.
Or was it?
“I went home and said, ‘Miss Carma, you know all the right people to make this work. You have all the right connections to make this work, you have the right job, the right personality, the right everything. If you ignore this and let it go by the wayside, you will be held accountable.’ I knew it,” she said.
“I totally had that (vision). I was destined for this,” she said. “Shame on me if I wouldn’t have done it knowing I was given these blessings and didn’t act on them. I believe they are blessings. If you have them and don’t use them, then shame on you.”
The vision hit her on her drive home that night. She convinced parents of the children to give her another try the next year, promising there would be a team to play and buddies to help every week.
Buddies were the key, so the parents of the special-needs children could sit in the stands and enjoy watching their kids play.
The first year, she had 12 players sign up, enough for two teams of six.
“They played each other every week,” she said, laughing again.
And they always had buddies.
She called some friends and asked them to volunteer an hour, laughing that it was a good thing Caller ID hadn’t been invented yet, allowing her calls to get through.
Former Central High School football coach Vern McGee was a high school friend. He brought some football players. Colorado Mesa baseball coach Chris Hanks scheduled a buddy night for his team. More and more teams said yes. The buddy system was born.
Her husband, Nick, and their sons, Cody and Kyle, were her biggest supporters. The boys became recruiters, seeing a child who might benefit from playing and approaching the child and his or her parents about Challenger.
The family had a garage sale one year, and a little boy was sifting through some outgrown baseball equipment.
Kyle, then about 13, she said, approached the boy.
“He said, ‘Hey, dude, you like baseball? You want to play in my mom’s baseball league?’” she recalled.
Brown explained Challenger to the little boy’s mother and that summer, he was playing baseball — after leaving the garage sale with all the baseball equipment, a gift from the Brown brothers.
The fledgling league was given leftover jerseys from the local Little Leagues. The sizes weren’t always right, but she made them work. She fetched equipment out of the lost and found at Grand Mesa.
Barnes Electric donated $150 that first year to help with anything Brown needed to buy. FCI Constructors built another wheelchair accessible dugout, this one at Grand Mesa. As the league grew, she had two fields, and could arrange her teams so families could play closer to where they live.
Several area businesses now donate to Challenger, allowing Brown to buy equipment, including shirts from minor league baseball teams.
“It’s all about the minor leagues with their logos,” Brown said. “They love being Dinosaurs and Bees and Raptors. They get that, and their hats are so cool.”
She’s toying with the idea of adopting the Pioneer League this season, since the league will grow to eight teams, the same number as the Rookie league.
Her love of baseball and desire to help led her to volunteer to be a host mom for the Grand Junction Rockies. She’s hosted three players each of the past two summers and stays in contact with all of her “boys.”
The Challenger season is over by the time the GJ Rockies play, but her players attend games. Brown said if she uses the Pioneer League as her teams this year, it will help her kids identify with the teams that come to town.
She wants only the best for the players and their families, and those families appreciate what she does.
In 1998, Jerry and Kelli Hamilton moved to Grand Junction from Denver.
Their daughter, Lindsay, has special needs. Brown, who works with Jerry at Home Loan Insurance, approached Kelli about being a coach.
Even though Lindsay, now 28, has graduated from high school and is out of the Challenger program, Kelli is still involved as the league administrator.
Their son, Taylor, played baseball at Fruita Monument and Colorado Mesa, and because of Challenger, Lindsay could share that experience with her brother.
“That was a big blessing,” Kelli said. “For Lindsay to say, she has limited vocabulary, but for her to tell Taylor, ‘I go ball,’ that gave them a connection where as siblings they did not have the same connection. It was very special for us.
“She connected not only with peers, but Taylor and his teams were buddies and she was able to make friends that she recognized at school.”
Brown and Kelli Hamilton have become good friends through the Challenger program.
“Carma has a rapport with every kid,” Kelli Hamilton said. “She can remember every kid’s name, stories about every player. She can connect with the kids as well as the parents. It just keeps on getting better and a lot of that is because of Carma.”
Brown’s younger brother, Darren, has special needs. He’s been involved in Special Olympics, with skiing his specialty, but she wishes a Challenger baseball program existed when Darren was growing up.
“My brother is my inspiration, he’s my purpose for wanting to see it work, because I wish I would have this when my brother was younger,” she said. “We could have come out and made it fun for him.”
So now, she makes it fun for other kids, trying to add something every year to make the experience better. She’s also on the board for the Special Olympics summer games in Grand Junction.
She met one athlete at dinner before last year’s games began, promising him she’d come watch him in his power lifting competition.
She barely made it to the venue, arriving just before he won the event. He spied her, and after hugging his coaches, made a beeline to Brown, giving her a bear hug, thrilled that his new friend kept her promise.
It was a small gesture on her part, Brown said, but those small gestures mean so much to the athletes.
Each team of buddies tries to make things special during their week.
The Colorado Mesa softball team got involved a few years ago, hosting the season opener at Bergman Field.
Kris Mort, then coach of the Mavericks, decided the Challenger players would get the same treatment her players receive.
Mort, now an associate athletic director at CMU, took the microphone and introduced the players as they came up to bat — to walk-up music.
“Now they will not go up to bat without hearing their names,” Brown said, laughing.
The first game of the season is a party at Bergman Field, with burgers and hot dogs afterwards.
The season finale is a festival unto itself.
Brown, a huge baseball fan, wondered if she couldn’t incorporate the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series with Challenger.
She went to her boss at Home Loan, who is also the chairman of the JUCO World Series.
Jamie Hamilton had seen the success of the program with the high school and Mesa buddies, and had been a buddy himself, but warned Brown she could meet some resistance from coaches wanting to concentrate only on winning a national championship.
“Our biggest issue is making sure it doesn’t distract from the whole purpose here,” he told her. “Start with one team.”
Now, Hamilton said, coaches approach him during the annual American Baseball Coaches Association convention and ask if they can be buddies if they qualify for JUCO.
“She made that offer to us and we love it,” San Jacinto (Texas) College North coach Tom Arrington said. “The years we aren’t able to go to Grand Junction, we miss that.”
The Gators have become so involved that part of their fundraising efforts are donated to GJ Challenger program.
Hamilton is a little amazed at how Brown has taken a group of a dozen kids and turn it into a program that others want to start in their communities.
“I’m quite proud of her and the work she’s done with this,” he said. “We’ve helped arrange some sponsorships (through JUCO) and (Challenger) gave us funding to help with that stadium so everybody can enjoy it and the kids with special needs can enjoy the games.
“You can’t say no to her, number one. She calls the high schools, the college and it’s just blossomed.”
Last year, with six Challenger teams, Spartanburg (S.C.) Methodist jumped on board.
“What she does is incredible,” Spartanburg coach Tim Wallace said. “We’ve always enjoyed coming to Grand Junction and this is another hook.
“I tell them we’re here to play, but there’s more to life than baseball. It never dawned on me to say no.”
Brown’s impact hasn’t gone unnoticed. She’s received several awards for her work, and in January 2015 will receive the ABCA award for meritorious service at the baseball coaches’ national convention in Orlando.
She’s planning to show a video of Challenger to the coaches at the convention, knowing what will happen.
“They’re going to be in tears,” she said, “and I’m not going to have to say a word.”
Brown cries several times every season. The waterworks start when she sees the first child smile running, or being pushed in a wheelchair, to first base with his or her buddy.
“I absolutely love to see kids with special needs being happy and accepted,” she said, her eyes welling up with tears. “I don’t believe there’s a smile that can compare to a special-needs smile.”