TK LINK Volunteers Help Students Play Ball!

Watching the two together on the field it’s obvious they form an instant connection. Grace, 6, beams a huge smile after she hits the ball off the tee on the first try. “Run to first,” instructs Rison as the two of them jog to the base together. When Grace stomps on the first-base bag, she gets a high-five from Rison, who is a member of the TK LINKS program.

This is the first year the LINKS have volunteered with youth baseball and softball. Thornapple Area Parks and Rec and Thornapple Kellogg High School LINK and National Honor Society Programs partnered this year to provide mentors for young ball players with a disability. The goal was to provide a trained student volunteer with a young player who may need some additional attention at practices and games to ensure everyone gets the most out of this awesome experience.

TK teacher and t-ball coach Jacki Schneider said it’s been very successful with her team. “It’s so great that all kids can play. It’s hard for a coach to give kids with disabilities the extra attention they need when they are coaching 8 or 10 other 5 and 6 year old kids too. We want to make sure everyone has a good experience.”

The LINKS program at TK pairs students to mentor and help students with disabilities. The program starts in fourth grade and continues through high school. During the school year, the Linkers mentor students, help them feel included and create a friendship with them.  

Rison said she started Linkers when she was in fifth grade and was glad she was able to be part of it again in high school.  This year, she was excited to extend her commitment to the summer t-ball schedule.  “I love helping out with kids and I love being around them,” said Rison, who will be a senior at TKHS this fall.

Schneider said at the t-ball level, the game is all about learning basics and having fun. “It’s good for everyone and we want to be inclusive to everyone. We don’t want kids to feel left out.”

Schneider said Rison and the other Linkers provide valuable extra help. “Kylee is amazing. She is a very service-oriented student and just phenomenal with the kids,” said Schneider.

Rison helps Grace with her batting stance, runs the bases with her, and sits with her in the dugout when Grace needs a break from the game. “I love seeing their smiles because it makes me smile too,” said Rison. “I’ve worked with a lot of kids and I just know how to connect with them.”

“Grace loves this,” said Jeff Kenyon, Grace’s father who watches every game from the bleachers with his wife, Laura, and other parents. “Grace has watched her older sisters play and she wants to do it too. It’s nice for her to get to be part of a team.”

He said he especially appreciates the help of the high school students. “I think it’s great for Grace and probably for the high school kids too. We’re really grateful that the LINKS program has helped Grace have a successful t-ball season- it's a win for everyone.”

Rison, who is interested in working or volunteering with the Special Olympics, said she was on the field every Saturday during the t-ball season and loved helping out. “I’ve always been taught to include others in any way I can and I just really like to see it.” 

Schneider said the season was a success and she hopes more Linkers will volunteer to help out in the future. “It’s a great idea and the perfect age to start this. Everyone has done very well,” said Schneider. “I think it's wonderful that our community supports this and we can provide inclusive teams. It’s just a great experience for everyone.”