April and May have a secret you should know.
When she founded Grand Junction's Challenger Baseball League for special needs children nearly twenty years ago, Carma Brown never imagined it would affect this many lives on Colorado's Western Slope.
"Talk to Carma Brown for an hour, and you feel like you can accomplish anything after feeding off her boundless energy. You plan on talking to Carma Brown for fifteen minutes, but she keeps you on the phone for an hour with her wit, charm, and passion. By the end of the conversation, your cheeks hurt from smiling so much at her stories about baseball and life on the Western Slope. She only told you a handful, though; you’re certain she has hundreds more.
Talk to Carma Brown for an hour, and you’d better keep up. She talks fast, and if you don’t, too, you’ll never find a break in the conversation. It’s not that she’s rude; it’s that she’s passionate, with more energy and drive than she knows what to do with and a natural ability to make you feel like you’ve known her for years, even if you only just met.
Talk to Carma Brown for an hour and you find that, besides her family, her passion lies in two areas: baseball and people. You better be ready if you ask her about those two things; she talks even faster when she’s discussing something she loves.
A mother of two and an insurance manager in Grand Junction for the last two decades, it’s Carma’s job to deal with people. When she can marry it with the national pastime, though, she’s a force. The kind of person you imagine must not sleep much. The kind of person that wins national awards and then downplays the honor because she doesn’t want attention on herself. The kind of person that starts a baseball league for special needs children because decades earlier her little brother didn’t have access to one."
"I grew up in Little League, me and my five siblings," Carma says. "We were all baseball and softball kids, and my dad coached, so I grew up in my own Little League here. And then the last of our six brothers and sisters is my little brother Darren, who has mild mental retardation. There was really nothing for him. He supports everybody, but he played tee ball, and then he didn’t have anywhere else he could play or anything else he could do after that."
That stuck with Carma her whole life.
One day seventeen years ago, with two sons playing Little League Baseball in Grand Junction, an opportunity came up for the local league to add Challenger Baseball, then a relatively new division of Little League designed to cater to special needs children. As it seems like she’s done with most things in her life, Carma went full steam ahead.
"I was the minor boy’s rep at that time, and I hated my position," Carma says, laughing as she re-lives the memory, "so I would have done anything to get out of minor boys. I was like, ‘I’ll try to start this! I don’t really know what I’m gonna do, but I can figure it out.’"
Little League’s Challenger Division was established in 1989, with the stated mission of enabling boys and girls with physical and mental challenges to enjoy the game of baseball. Challenger teams are set up based on abilities rather than age (kids from 4-18 can play; even young adults as old as 22 are eligible in certain circumstances), and the rules of play vary from tee ball to coach pitch and even player pitch, depending on what the athletes are able to do.
If Challenger baseball is new to you right now, well, you’re just like Carma was back then—only you haven’t volunteered yourself to start and run a league.
"The first year was kind of a disaster," Carma admits, chuckling about how far the league has come since those early days. "But it was really an easy mission for me once I got the right people involved, like my very best friend Kelli. Her daughter is disabled so she was automatically going to be the coach, there was no question, and her daughter was going to play, and we had some brave little kids that showed interest that first difficult year."
Talk to Carma Brown for an hour, and you quickly learn about her "very best friend Kelli." That’s Kelli Hamilton, a mother of two who has been in Grand Junction with her husband and kids for nearly two decades after moving from Parker. She met Carma very soon after reaching the Western Slope, and jumped on immediately as a coach, in part to get her own daughter, Lindsay, involved with a sport.
"We started the league with just two teams, and it became a great way for Lindsay to play ball, and become active, and do something that would not have been an opportunity for her otherwise," Kelli says. "As parents, it was special for Jerry and I to see her participate in the game like that. I continued being a coach until Lindsay was no longer able to play because she turned 21, and I just stayed with it, because the magic that happens never gets old."
Nowadays, Grand Junction’s Challenger League has eight teams—conveniently named after the eight teams of the Pioneer League—but things didn’t begin that way. With just two teams to start, trying to play once a week on a field often too muddy and inaccessible for wheelchairs and walkers, the first season was rough, to say the least.
"But above everything, I just knew the vision," Brown insists, "and we stumbled through the first year."
Stumble they did, with bad field conditions, a tough time finding interested kids, and little oversight. Somehow, though, Carma had fulfilled her responsibility: get a league for special needs kids off the ground in Grand Junction. For Hamilton and her daughter Lindsay, muddy fields and logistical problems were miles away from the stuff that actually mattered.
"It enabled Lindsay to have contact with her peers," Kelli says of Challenger’s role in her daughter’s life. "She got older, and she was able to have friendships with high school peers that she would not have had otherwise because of that connection that was made on the baseball field. They got to see Lindsay as someone like them. They were able to see that they had more in common than their differences."
Something special was happening, and momentum stayed in Carma’s favor through the first year. A construction company helped build fields compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, Carma—and Kelli—pushed through managing games despite often having little help, and before she knew it, the calendar rolled around to year two.
"After the first year, those kids, I promised them that if you please come back next year, I promise every one of you will have buddies," Carma says, her voice quivering even now when recalling the old memory, "and the first time you don’t have a buddy at a game, you can leave and never come back."
Much of the program’s lasting success can be traced back to the buddies. Carma had a program that first season at every game, where a buddy—a local high school or college athlete—would be assigned to each Challenger player to help with baseball activities, and most importantly, help emotionally support the child as a new teammate.
"Whatever the need is, that child’s buddy would accommodate that," she explains of the way they do things to this day on the Western Slope. "So if they need a push in their wheelchair, that’s what they’re going to do. If they just need them to stand there and give moral support to throw the ball to first base, well, then that’s what their buddy is going to do."
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Talk to Carma Brown for an hour, and you quickly learn she doesn’t just spend her spare time with Challenger Baseball. That’d be too easy, you get the feeling; she needs to be overbooked to really come alive. During the summers that’s the case, when she serves as a host mom for the Pioneer League’s Grand Junction Rockies.
Tasked with hosting professional baseball players assigned by the big league club to the Western Slope, Carma has invited Eddie Butler, Kyle Freeland, Sam Howard, Ryan McMahon, Harrison Musgrave, and many more into her home the last several years. She tells you stories about them; you laugh, and you shake your head in amazement. Is there anything this woman doesn’t do? You don’t share the stories with anybody, though. At least not yet. It’ll make for something cooler in the future.
Mick Ritter, the assistant general manager of the Grand Junction Rockies, jumps at the chance to vouch for Carma.
"She’s tireless," Ritter says.
You make a note the amazement in his voice, because, well, you feel the same emotion.
"It seems like she’s always running. She’s at every single one of our games, her and her husband. They are a great host family for us. She’s just so good for the Rockies. Everybody knows Carma."
Ritter knows Carma better than most, though. In addition to working with her as she hosts the pro ballplayers that the young front office executive must oversee every Pioneer League summer, Ritter grew up playing Little League Baseball with—you guessed it—Carma’s sons.
"If you’re involved in Little League here, and this goes back to when I was playing, we were always with Carma," Ritter says. "We always knew Carma would be there. She was always there. She wouldn’t miss a game. Now, she doesn’t miss a Challenger game, she doesn’t miss a Rockies baseball game, she takes care of the players, and she just takes care of people. That’s a big plus on Carma. She’s just a good person."
Her best friend and a fellow advocate for the program, Kelly Hamilton is also a mom of one of the players.
Carma said, "we are so different on so many ways, but that's what makes it work. Kelly sees things as a mom. She has had to learn to trust