Two buddies find career options on the ball field


Bob Schweiger instructs Becky Penders on how to connect her bat to the ball in the Viera Suntree Little League Challenger Division.

photo by thomas e. penders

Honorable Charles “Charlie” Crawford approached Dave Zavetz 10 years ago about establishing a challenger division in the Viera Suntree Little League (VSLL).

“My three boys and the two Zavetz children, along with dozens of other teenagers, have been buddies over the last 10 seasons. All of them have expressed, in one form or another, how much being a challenger buddy has helped them grow emotionally. They develop empathy and the understanding of how we are all really more alike than not, even with so many differences. The challenger and buddy program has been a huge success in large part to the Zavetz family and their dedication to the VSLL special needs kids who just want to play baseball like the rest of the kids,” Crawford said.

The Little League Challenger Division began in 1989 for students ages 4 to 22. Today, more than 30,000 children with special needs enjoy the game of baseball. The teams focus on abilities and players wear the same uniforms and safety equipment as other Little League players.

Jackie Mikuskovic talks with a player at the Viera Suntree Little League Challenger Division. | PHOTO BY THOMAS E. PENDERSMichele Zavetz, who signed on along with her husband, said all players must wear safety equipment.

“They have to process it,” Michele Zavetz said. “One boy, Joey, wanted to walk around the field first. Joey started going through the process. We watched him get it. When they get it, they feel accepted and good about themselves.”

The challenger division uses buddies who assist the players on the field, while encouraging independence. 

“The buddies are amazing kids and adults, but what happens is you end up being selfish,” Michele Zavetz said. “You get more from the kids than you give. They are so loving and giving. For me, the reward is when you figure out what is special to each child. We don’t force anything as long as they come out. We’ve had a lot of buddies who fell in love with the kids and have moved on to be special-ed teachers, social workers, occupational therapists.”

Jenna Zavetz went with her parents to the first challenger practice when she was 9 years old. Currently studying to be an occupational therapist at the University of Florida, she intends to make a career of working with children who have special needs.

“The littlest things make them proud. When one child interacts with others, it touches me. It lightens my heart,” Jenna Zavetz said. “When I started, I didn’t recognize there was any difference. They were just new kids I was going to hang out with.”

Jackie Mijuskovic is another buddy who was profoundly influenced by her work with the challenger division. Recruited to play softball at Flagler College, the recent Rockledge High graduate will major in special education with an eye toward working with children who have autism.

Jackie Mijuskovich, left, bonded with Jackson “Jack” Griffin when they played in the VSLL Challenger Division with Jackie as buddy/coach and Jack as a player. | PHOTO COURTESY OF ARDIE GRIFFIN​Mijuskovic said, “Five years ago, some of the girls I played travel ball with introduced me to the program for a way to earn community service hours. I fell in love with it. I bonded with two of the players, even though the kids come and go. Jackson wanted nothing to do with Challenger, at first. Then, there’s Becky. She has cerebral palsy, autism and was born without eyes. She’s the best! She took to me and we got very close.”

Becky also developed a special bond with another buddy who is now a coach.

When Bob Schweiger retired eight years ago, he wanted to do more than donate to United Way.

“I prefer to work one on one,” Schweiger said. “I thought this was the neatest thing to get involved in. Becky was the first one I met. When she patted my hand and kissed my cheek, that was it.”

Schweiger said he takes special pride when he can help a player improve.

“I feel good. I get a good feeling that I’m helping them. They like me and respect me. I get their friendship. That develops over time. A couple have gone from being players, to being buddies and helping us with the younger kids. They are all my children.”

Dave Zavetz said girls tend to volunteer more often than boys. 

Two stellar exceptions are brothers Jackson and Zachary Taylor. Their mother, Angie Taylor, said both boys are active in sports.

“I’ve noticed Zachary has taken a liking to his role as a buddy. He cares about these kids.

Zack has a new appreciation for coaches as a result of his association with the challenger division. He even drove the golf cart to a challenger game when my husband and I had other obligations and couldn’t drive him. He didn’t want to miss the game.

The regular season is over, but the VSLL Challenger Division has been invited to play an exhibition game at the Little League Southeast Regional Headquarters in Warner Robbins, Ga. on July 29.

Current VSLL president John Glendinning said the trip, which requires extensive planning and preparation, has been made possible through one man who donated $3,500.

“It’s a big deal,” Glendinning said.