It was a “if you build it, they will come” journey that took more than a decade to establish Valdosta’s miracle field.
In 2004, when Andy Gibbs watched a documentary about the Miracle League—a non-profit that provides children with disabilities an opportunity to play baseball—it piqued his interest.
“I always had a passion for children and adults with disabilities,” says Gibbs, a teacher at Valdosta Middle School and a member of the Valdosta City Council. “Over the next 10 years, I worked around the clock sharing with everyone that would listen why we needed a Miracle League in Valdosta.”
Founded under the premise that “every child deserves a chance to play baseball,” the national Miracle League organization was founded in 1998 by the Rockdale Youth Baseball Association in Conyers, Georgia.
Today, with 300 Miracle League programs in five countries, the organization establishes local chapters that provide opportunities for children with mental and/or physical challenges to play baseball on specially designed rubberized fields.
While Gibbs never lost sight of the goal, it took ten years before “all the stars aligned and the doors opened.”
In 2014, George Page, executive director of the Valdosta-Lowndes County Parks and Recreation Authority (VLPRA), contacted Gibbs about co-locating a Miracle League Field in the next phase of the Freedom Park expansion.
Now knowing a potential location could exist within an already established ballpark in Valdosta, the Miracle League of Valdosta, a non-profit organization, was established. A newly elected board of volunteers began work on raising construction funds, researching and designing the new field, and developing the programming to serve athletes and their families.
“As a board, we decided to start playing baseball while working toward building our own field,” Gibbs says. “In March 2015, we started playing baseball on two dirt fields at Freedom Park.”
Starting with only 21 athletes, Gibbs says, “Over the next three years, our numbers grew to over 125 players and 300 volunteers consistently every year for each fall and spring season.”
“I always had a passion for children and adults with disabilities.
Over the next 10 years, I worked around the clock sharing with everyone that would listen why we needed a Miracle League in Valdosta.”
–Andy Gibbs, Valdosta Middle School teacher and Valdosta City Council member.
While games were being played, the end goal focused on building an accessible, two-dimensional, rubberized baseball field.
“Everyone in the Valdosta and Lowndes community has a big heart for our kids and adults with special needs,” says Gibbs. “That is why we have so many agencies that focus on those needs. However, getting everyone to see the need for a Miracle League field was a challenge.”
Obstacles existed, including location, cost, and long-term maintenance.
“Fortunately, a few members of the community started really looking into what a Miracle League field would do for our families, kids, and adults with special needs,” says Gibbs. “The opportunities it would give our agencies that serve people with special needs. The recognition that it would bring to our community and for folks that are moving to this area that may need a service that the Miracle League provides.”
With assistance from the VLPRA, the Miracle League Complex at Freedom Park opened in March 2019 and is home to the nation’s largest Miracle Field.
Considered by many as the “crown jewel” in VLPRA’s Freedom Park, the $1.6 million Miracle League of Valdosta complex includes a two-dimensional rubberized field with fully accessible dugouts, restrooms, concession stand, pavilion, and playground.
During the Miracle League season, which lasts about six weeks, players learn the fundamentals of baseball. Each athlete is assigned a volunteer—known as a buddy—to help throughout the game. Assistance includes batting the ball, rounding the bases, getting into field position, and throwing the ball, depending on each athlete’s abilities.
In 2018, Gibbs was recognized as the State Volunteer of the Year by the Georgia Recreation and Park Association for his determination and efforts in starting the Miracle League of Valdosta.