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Challengers Little League Team Wants Better Access To Field

Carma Cornell, front; sister Dejea in back, Sierra Mountain Little League

OAKHURST — There’s a ball field, and there’s a team. Problem is, the team can’t navigate the field.

Despite its popularity, our busy local Little League field has inadequate access for about 20 softball players with special needs, say parents — and organizers agree. From walkers to wheelchairs, it’s extremely difficult to get around the facility. Severe disrepair and a lack of modern updates is preventing some children from safely accessing the premises. Now, a family, a league, and a contractor are ready and willing to help, and all that’s needed is money.

Sierra Mountain Little League (SMLL) is a volunteer-run organization and an institution in the foothills. Last year, nearly 200 kids signed up to play before the season ended. This year, they have about 130 participants already, and more are expected to add their names to the baseball roster as opening day on Saturday, Mar. 16 gets closer. Registration is open until Mar. 1.

Of those players, typically about 20 young people make up the Challengers team, comprised of athletes with special needs. Among them is Carma Cornell, an Oakhurst resident who is almost 9-years-old.

L-R: Jachie, Carma, Matt, Dejea Cornell

We first met Carma nearly five years ago, almost two years after she’d been diagnosed with a tumor on her spinal cord that developed into a glioma. Despite the aggressive nature of this type of cancer (pilocytic astrocytoma glioma, grade 2 diffuse), Carma’s fighting spirit prevailed. Today, after cutting-edge treatment under the supervision of Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles, Carma is officially the first person in the United States to be in remission with this type of cancer.

So, this isn’t a story about a little girl with cancer.

This is a story about an athlete and her teammates who need safe access to their beloved field.

Carma gets around well using her walker. When she goes to the ball field in Oakhurst, mom and dad hoist her up and carry her down the stairs.

Jachie watches as Dejea measure the rutted road with a bat

Alternatively, families like the Cornells with special needs kids can be driven approximately 80 feet down a severely rutted gravel road to a dirt-and-gravel parking area. The driveway was already eroded about two feet deep before recent storms. It’s going to need a lot of work before anyone can traverse it and, when they do, children with special needs and their families are going to have to slog through dirt, mud and gravel — let alone snow — to get to where it’s more easily passable.

The place has drainage and erosion issues. The road needs to be regraded, paved, and have drainage improvements installed. A concrete drop-off area and walkways that meet path-of-travel requirements are needed to connect the accessible parking area to the rest of the facility. SMLL organizers say the field is owned by the same nonprofit organization that owns the Oakhurst Community Center.

Traditionally, the Challengers play in Oakhurst on Saturdays at 9 a.m., as two teams of eight or nine kids each face one another weekly. Because reliable schedules are especially important to special needs families, Challenger parents want their kids to continue to play at the same place at the same time. They don’t want to take their kids down the hill and across the city to play other special needs kids because time is one of their most valuable resources. They want to do what they’ve been doing, only better and more safely, with up-to-code access for their children and others in the community.

Jachie walks the area where the new access will be created

Fortunately, the Cornell family is stepping up to bat for the Challengers and taking over where the team’s former first family Michael and Lisa Sesto left off. Hard shoes to fill, but the Sestos and their children have moved on to other activities. The Challengers are grateful to have had them at the helm for the length of time they did.

Now, Carma’s mom Jachie Cornell is on the Board of Directors for SMLL. She says that, based on an estimate from a local contractor who’s experienced with access compliance, the cost for the necessary work is expected to be approximately $22,000. That includes a healthy discount. SMLL is seeking tax-deductible donations of cash and materials to defray the costs.

“This situation requires community involvement,” Jachie explains.

Jachie, Carma, big sister Dejea and dad Matthew are passionate about the project they’re undertaking. Matthew, in fact, played ball on this field as a child, and Dejea’s sporting his vintage team jacket to prove it.

Jachie and Matt Cornell discuss the shortcomings of the baseball field’s current path-of-travel

The Cornells know that one of the complications of living in the foothills is finding ways to keep families busy — especially when it comes to the need for adaptive sports — and they know it’s up to individuals in the community to band together to enact positive change.

“If you don’t like your yard, start gardening,” Jachie believes, and so they get to work, undaunted by the Challengers’ challenges and determined to make the ball field comfortable for others, where it’s been hard for them.

Athletes on the Challengers team are each paired with a buddy who helps them and, to varying degrees, mirrors their activity on the field. Buddies are volunteers who come in the form of parents, grandparents, and friends. In June, the Challengers usually travel to Pleasanton for a summer jamboree. The Cornells are excited to support the team.

“Kids are the future and we’re ready to build this opportunity for the children of Eastern Madera County.”

Carma Cornell at Sierra Mountain Little League field in Oakhurst

Scott Michel is the SMLL president, now in his second year. Father of two boys ages 5 and 7, he’s also the league treasurer and field maintenance guy.

“The Challengers are a great group of kids, and this is the only sport offered right now in the mountains for special needs youth,” says Scott. “Making our field ADA compliant is something that has been on my mind since I started volunteering for the league. Jachie and Matt and the other parents involved are an inspiration.”

Scott confirms that SMLL is working closely with the organizational board of the community center to make improvements. He’s actively seeking funds by applying to grants from Little League Baseball and Softball and local service groups, including Rotary.

While creating accessibility at the Little League field is clearly a priority for SMLL, the desire for change doesn’t stop there, says Scott. There are other needs to be addressed, as well, and maintaining and modernizing the field is an on-going process.

“It’s all about the kids,” says Scott.

“If you don’t like your yard, start gardening.”

The Cornells have big plans, too, including a girls league and, some day, a return of tournament play for all teams in SMLL. It wouldn’t hurt to have a handicapped restroom located near the drop-off, either, so people don’t have to schlep all the way across the field to use the facilities.

Anyone who is willing or able to help, whether it be a donation of funds or a donation of materials, is encouraged to reach out to the Cornells and Scott at SMLL. If you’re planning on writing a check, please make it out to Sierra Mountain Little League with a memo notation of Challengers.

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