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Reserve Citizen Airman ensures all children can play

Challenger League Baseball

340th Flying Training Group Director of Personnel and Manpower Lt. Col. Mark Hiatt, his wife Rachel and their youngest son Jonathan unload the supplies and gear for the day’s baseball game. Hiatt - or “Coach,” as the kids call him - coaches special needs sports programs in the Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, area to ensure all kids have a chance to play sports. (U.S. Air Force photo by Debbie Gildea)

Challenger League Baseball

340th Flying Training Group Director of Personnel and Manpower Lt. Col. Mark Hiatt (Coach), right, and Challenger League Director Stacey Lynn talk with volunteer “buddies” before their baseball game begins. Hiatt and other volunteers work together to ensure sports programs are available for special needs kids in the greater Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas area. (U.S. Air Force photo by Debbie Gildea)

Challenger League Baseball

340th Flying Training Group Director of Personnel and Manpower Lt. Col. Mark Hiatt (Coach) talks with one of his ballplayers as the child steps up to bat. Hiatt and other volunteers work together to ensure sports programs are available for special needs kids in the greater Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas area. (U.S. Air Force photo by Debbie Gildea)

Challenger League Baseball

A Challenger League Cubs player prepares to take his turn at bat. Tiny but fierce, this player is one of several special needs kids who play for 340th Flying Training Group Director of Personnel and Manpower Lt. Col. Mark Hiatt (Coach). Hiatt and other volunteers work together to ensure sports programs are available for special needs kids in the greater Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas area. (U.S. Air Force photo by Debbie Gildea)

Challenger League Baseball

Challenger League volunteer Kevin Wright and a volunteer buddy (red shirt) help one of Challenger League Cubs players take his bases during a game held in the greater Randolph area Memorial Day weekend. Wright is one of the volunteer parents who work with 340th Flying Training Group Director of Personnel and Manpower Lt. Col. Mark Hiatt (Coach) to ensure sports programs are available for special needs kids Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas area. (U.S. Air Force photo by Debbie Gildea)

Challenger League Baseball

Daniel Hiatt, 10, takes his turn at bat during a game between the Greater Northeast Little League Challenger League Cubs and their buddies (older baseball and softball players who volunteer to help the Cubs play). Daniel’s dad, 340th Flying Training Group Director of Personnel and Manpower Lt. Col. Mark Hiatt, coaches the Cubs with support from local adult and teenage volunteers. (U.S. Air Force photo by Debbie Gildea)

Challenger League Baseball

Challenger League volunteer Rachael Lake guides player Daniel Hiatt past first base during a game held in the Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas area. Lake is one of the volunteer parents who work with 340th Flying Training Group Director of Personnel and Manpower Lt. Col. Mark Hiatt (Coach) to ensure sports programs are available for special needs kids. (U.S. Air Force photo by Debbie Gildea)

Challenger League Baseball

340th Flying Training Group Director of Personnel and Manpower Lt. Col. Mark Hiatt (Coach) adjusts a player’s grip as the child prepares to bat. Hiatt and other volunteers work together to ensure sports programs are available for special needs kids in the greater Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas area. (U.S. Air Force photo by Debbie Gildea)

Challenger League Baseball

340th Flying Training Group Director of Personnel and Manpower Lt. Col. Mark Hiatt (Coach) pitches to one of his players during a recent game. Hiatt and other volunteers work together to ensure sports programs are available for special needs kids in the Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas area. (U.S. Air Force photo by Debbie Gildea)

JOINT-BASE SAN ANTONIO-Randolph, Texas -- Close your eyes and listen to the rat-a-tat baby bird chatter, rolling trill of laughter, and the ever-so-serious instructions doled out to fellow imagineers, and you’ll agree, there’s nothing like the sound of children at play.

Open your eyes - at a little park in Kirby, Texas, a handful of adults are surrounded by a host of chattering children eager to play baseball. Towering above them all is Coach, whose calm and quiet presence encourages the animated athletes to be still, to focus, to listen.

Coach - Reserve Citizen Airman Lt. Col. Mark Hiatt, as he is known in the military - is the 340th Flying Training Group Director of Manpower and Personnel. He coaches the Challenger League Cubs, a team of children who range from 3 to 10 years old. They’re “special needs” kids, which means they have physical, mental, emotional or developmental needs that are different from many others’ needs.

Medical practitioners exist to help families with their kids’ special needs, but Hiatt focuses on a most critical need: he ensures they can enjoy the same game that their brothers, sisters and parents have enjoyed.

Hiatt started coaching youth sports in 2007 while living at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, when his sons, Stephen and Joshua, were 6 and 3 years old. He got involved in coaching special needs sports when his son, Daniel (now 10), had very few local options. Having supported Daniel’s efforts at other duty locations, he decided to get more involved to create special needs options for Daniel, while simultaneously coaching his youngest son, Jonathan (now 7 years old).

With four boys playing sports, the Hiatt family makes it work - like any other large family, Hiatt said - including special needs options for Daniel.

While the on-going process has been daunting, recent positive news has fortified Hiatt to continue the hard work of expanding opportunities for special needs kids in his local area.

And it is work, albeit a labor of love.

Hiatt, who played sports in school, knows first-hand the benefits, including social and physical development. But there’s more to it for him.

According to national statistics, in any given area, 13.1 percent of the population is identified as special needs, Hiatt said. However, available local sports options are very limited.

That affects families in a couple of ways.

When fewer options are available and those available are too far away or during times that are not conducive, families with special needs kids don’t participate.

“Parents with several children, single parents, working parents all have challenges meeting their kids’ needs, so a family in the Greater Randolph area is unlikely to drive to San Antonio two or three times a week to get their kids involved in a program,” Hiatt explained.

Because these programs are critical for kids’ health and happiness, lack of programs frequently means parents and local volunteers need to double-up (or triple-up) on volunteer activities to make sure their kids have opportunities.

“We depend on volunteers to help us make this work,” Hiatt said. Those volunteers include teenagers, local organizations and local buddies.

For the Greater Northeast Little League Challenger Cubs, several older softball and baseball players volunteer to buddy up with them during every game. The buddies help them catch and field the ball, tag runners and more. They also play as the opposing team, playing with caution to ensure the Cubs can respond without injury.

Hiatt explained that many special needs sports programs involve the buddy concept, but some leagues allow ball players to earn community service points for volunteering, or provide them with concession stand vouchers.

To make sure the game is fun for the kids, Hiatt focuses on basic skills, understanding, awareness, entertainment, socialization and making sure they have fun.

Like they do in big league games, Hiatt announces every player at bat. That attention coupled with the roar of the fans impacts the kids in a powerful way. During the Cubs last game of the season, several children asked Coach to pitch to them, rather than hit from a batting tee.

For Hiatt, that was huge - a triple play to win the game wouldn’t have been better.

As critical as it is for the kids to have an outlet, it’s equally important for their parents.

“One blessing for me is to see parents get a break from being the 100-percent, 24/7 caregiver, and watching them relax and watch their kids have fun,” Hiatt said.

Most parents of special needs kids have to be on their toes and on watch every single second.

“If I don’t keep eyes on, he (Daniel) will wander off,” said Hiatt. “He’s autistic, and has physical special needs, and has gone through multiple surgeries throughout his life.”

Being able to come together with other parents who understand and being able to relinquish that eyes-on-every-second responsibility - even if just for an hour - is transformational for many families.

The limited options, however, do affect them.

The Hiatts continue to push for more options, however, and recently secured Greater Randolph Area Youth Soccer Association approval for a special needs soccer program. Activities will begin in September, and Hiatt hopes that parents will get involved and bring their kids out for this chance to play.

Although baseball won’t begin again until the next January sign-up, the Hiatts are still very busy preparing for the soccer season, and working to broaden their kids’ church basketball program with buddy basketball.

The need is great for participants, parents and volunteers to help develop and run the baseball and soccer programs but the reward is great, too.

Close your eyes. Listen. A single voice rises pure and proud above the roar of a cheering crowd; a mother watches her special boy - with waves of powerful aching joy - as he rounds third base and heads for home plate. Yes, indeed, the reward is great.