Field of Dreams

Many individuals were involved in creating The Miracle League of Newton County, including Kimberly Walden—an educator who has been connected to kids with special needs for most of her life. Active in the league since its inception, Walden’s passion for the program only blossomed when her own child was diagnosed with autism.

by Kari Apted

The familiar crack of the bat rang through the air and radiated across the meticulously manicured field. Curiously, both teams cheered wildly for the hitter, even though the pitcher had tossed the ball from just 10 feet away. Players circled the bases with a buddy holding their hand or pushing their wheelchair. No one cared about outs or strikes, and genuine smiles shone on nearly every face. The scene captures the joy present during every baseball game associated with The Miracle League of Newton County. It is a contagious type of happiness, one that led Kimberly Walden to volunteer with the acclaimed program well before its first game in 2015. 

“My sister, Kelli Rebholz, and I helped raise money for the league, helped build the playground and were the first coaches of the Cubs team,” she said. Walden felt led into her work with special needs children. “I had no intentions of getting involved, but when God calls you to do something, that’s what you do.” Walden originally went to college to become a social worker, and her sister studied criminal justice. However, both obtained degrees in special needs education. “My mom was a paraprofessional in a severe/profound special needs class and just retired last year after 30 years,” Walden said. “When we were younger, teachers could bring kids home, and one of her students actually became our Godsister.”

Walden originally began helping the Miracle League as a way of giving back to her beloved students. She now serves as the principal of Our World School—a private, non-profit K-12 school in McDonough for children diagnosed with special needs. Her work with uniquely challenged children infuses every part of her life. 

“I coached a game the day before my wedding,” Walden said. “We had to change our rehearsal dinner to Thursday because we had a game on Friday and our wedding on Saturday.” Walden and her husband soon discovered they were expecting their first child, and true to form, she coached baseball until the day before Kayden was born. Kayden was diagnosed with autism at 18 months old. “I didn’t realize how that would impact our family later on,” Walden said. Two more children soon followed: Jaxon, then Gracelyn. When Kayden was 4, he started playing Miracle League baseball with his mother, adding a new dimension to her love of the sport. “That league means so much to the kids,” she said. “They hit the ball, and it goes over the fence. They take so much pride in it. These kids don’t often feel successful in many aspects of life, at school or because of social deficits. Here, they get a chance to feel pride.”

“I had no intentions of getting involved, but when God calls you to do something, that’s what you do.”

Kimberly Walden

Kechia Morrow, the recreation therapeutic coordinator for Newton County, sees The Miracle League as the perfect setting to improve the quality of life for many special needs individuals. 

“I was a special education teacher for a large metro Atlanta school district for about 15 years,” Morrow said. “I witnessed many of my students unable to take part in sports because of their challenges, and as they aged out of the school system, there were essentially no recreational experiences afforded to them.” 

(L TO R) Kayden Walden and Judd Rebholz

Children as young as 4 can join a Miracle League team, but there is no upper-age cutoff. Newton County’s players currently range in age from 4 to 39, and each team is structured to include a variety of ages, genders and abilities. As the official league motto says, “Everyone deserves the chance to play baseball.” Morrow finds herself smiling and laughing the entire time whenever she attends a game. “I have never met a more dedicated and deserving group of athletes in my life,” she said. “Every week, regardless of their disabilities or skill level, they show up ready to play ball, and their enthusiasm is contagious.” 

Another favorite aspect of the game experience involves the diverse playlist of walk-up songs players chooses for themselves. Sports announcer DJ Seals plays the league’s vast collection of carefully chosen songs, which include hard rock, rap and cartoon themes. “The kids know which song is theirs. If I’m late playing it, they’ll just stand there and look at me until I do,” he said with a laugh. Seals has volunteered with the league since Day 1, and his positive, lighthearted banter gives a whole new definition to the term “color commentator.” When one young boy ran straight from second base to home plate, Seals praised his choice to save time by bypassing third. Later, when a teenage girl struggled to connect with the ball, Seals attributed her difficulty to the coach’s pitching ability. As several balls zoomed past her bat, Seals relayed to the crowd that they were not the pitches she was looking for. “This game is the happiest place on earth,” he said. “This is the purest form of baseball.”

Kayden Walden
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Newton County’s Miracle League grows each year, with the Spring 2024 roster boasting 103 players from four surrounding counties. Registration for the spring season begins in January, and fall registration generally opens in mid-July. “It’s only $35 to play,” Walden said. “It’s very affordable.” While Jimmy Dugan famously put forth the idea that “there’s no crying in baseball” in the 1992 film “A League of Their Own,” if you look closely, you are bound to witness a happy tear or two at every Miracle League game. Friends, family, and fans are moved to see parents high fiving and hugging their children after circling the bases together. Many of those emotions are rooted in years of playing together. 

Kelli Rebholz and Kayden Walden

“I have students now that I had when they were in kindergarten. One of them is graduating from high school this year,” Walden said. “A lot of the players and coaches have been here since the first season. It really is like a big family.” Morrow agreed. “Baseball brings us together,” she said. “Inclusion makes us stronger.” 

Click here to read more stories by Kari Apted. 

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