The PONY field at nearby West Hills Baseball can certainly be called a field of dreams as The Champions–a newly formed league of players with special needs–head out to practice.
Under the direction of husband and wife coaches Lisa and Kory Kodimer of West Hills, the 15 players that make up the Champions Division swing, toss and catch with their buddies–volunteers from Calabasas High Varsity Baseball Team.
The large group assembles at this spot every Monday at 4:30 p.m., often drawing a group of onlookers.
With disabilities ranging from autism to down syndrome, some players are hampered not only by mental factors, but by severe physical ones as well. But that doesn’t stop Lisa from pushing them to do their best.
“Come on, Jacob,” she called out to 7-year-old Jacob Levin of Lupin Hill Elementary School. “Toss the ball.”
Jacob threw to his buddy, Max Sonnenberg, a 14-year-old freshman from Calabasas High.
“I definitely think it’s a lot of fun,” said Sonnenberg, scooping the young child into his arms. “I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel going into it, but I definitely developed a bond with Jacob. And I think he likes it, too.”
The team is actually the brainchild of Kodimer’s son, 11-year-old Kole.
“He came to me one day as we were trying to think of a community project for his Bar Mitzvah," Lisa recalls. "I thought we could do like one day at the park and do a home run derby.”
What Kole came back with surprised his mom, a model for a special needs baseball team.
“He said, ‘Mommy, I want to do what you did 20 years ago.’”
Two decades prior, Kodimer had volunteered her time to coaching special needs kids on the Mid-Valley Baseball Little Challengers Division after earning her bachelor’s degree in child development with an emphasis on special needs from California State University, Northridge.
“In my heart, I really didn’t think it was gonna' happen and I look at this ... my 11-year-old has taught me so much,” Kodimer said.
The Kodimers presented the idea to the board of directors at West Hills Baseball, who "loved" it.
A sluggish start was initially discouraging for Lisa. The Champions had experienced an unforeseen problem, not enough players to satisfy volunteer demand.
“A couple months ago we only had two kids and I was devastated,” Lisa recalls. “We were working so hard to get the word out there and it just wasn’t working, and Kole said, ‘Mommy we can’t give up. It’s gonna' happen.’ ”
Soon, a call came in from Rabbi Erez Sherman of the local Shomrei Torah Synagogue, who'd heard about the Kodimer’s story and was so moved, he wrote a sermon about it entitled Lightening Our Burdens. A sports enthusiast with a special needs brother of his own, Sherman was touched.
“This is a woman and a son who don't even have special needs in their family," he said. "They've discovered a real need in the community and struck gold ... This project is so beyond baseball."
Sherman was able to “connect the dots” by spreading the word to other synagogue members, such as Julie and Richard Zelden, whose 10-year-old son Ben has been diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum Disorder.
“This league allows him to play for fun, feel successful at what he can do, gain and use his social skills and learn the basics of the game,” said Julie Zelden. "We are grateful for this league because our children are accepted here and loved here. They feel a sense of success and it is evident even if they can't express themselves.”
It wasn’t long before the league had grown to two full teams with four times the amount of volunteers, leading the Kodimers to a lot of Monday games and Sunday practices.
Lisa’s husband, Kory, a former baseball coach, and other son, Kamden, are also dedicated to the cause.
“I make sure all the equipment’s ready to go and set up for every game,” he said.
The fall season is set to end Nov. 18, but the games resume in the spring. When they do, Lisa is planning to hold a community fundraiser for the league, a party for the volunteers and hopes to sign up to 18 additional players to form two more teams.
The Champions is open to boys and girls between the ages of 5-16. To get involved, contact Lisa at Lisachampions@yahoo.com.