Maggie Leahy hopped onto home plate, threw her helmet to the ground and ran to the dugout to celebrate.
Leahy, who has a developmental disability and attends Millbrook High School, said hitting the ball is her favorite part of baseball. And she got to do just that during the seventh annual Field of Dreams event on Thursday.
More than 300 students with special needs from nine Wake County schools gathered at the athletic fields of The Factory in Wake Forest to compete alongside their schools’ varsity baseball and softball teams.
It’s all about bringing students together and encouraging some friendly competition.
“There’s nothing about disability in this event. This is about ability,” said Karen Hamilton, assistant superintendent for special education services for Wake County schools. “This is a way for kids to appreciate each other’s ability.”
The event aims to build a stronger school community, said Gail Tucker, who started Field of Dreams. She has been a special education teacher for 20 years and has been working at Wake Forest High for the last 10 years.
“Part of our job as special education teachers is not just preparing our students in the classroom but outside too,” Tucker said. “They need to find a way to be part of a community, and athletics is a great way to do that.”
Michal Bolen, a sophomore with special needs at Heritage High School, helps out with the school’s baseball team. The Field of Dreams event gives him another chance to be part of a sport he loves.
“Baseball makes me feel great,” he said. “(It makes me feel) smart and like a good listener.”
Tucker crafted the idea to host a day of baseball games during a parent-teacher conference. Some parents of students with special needs complained that summer activities often kept their kids separated from mainstream peers.
So Tucker created Field of Dreams in 2009 with the help of local businesses and volunteers.
The first year, Wake Forest High played Wakefield High. The rivalry between the schools was as strong as during a regular-season game. About 250 people came out to watch, Tucker said.
The event grew a little each year and now includes all Cap Eight schools. This year, East Wake High School was added to the roster.
More than 600 people volunteered or played in this year’s event, Wake County schools spokesman Matt Dees said.
Eventually, Tucker would like to expand the event to include all Wake schools.
On Thursday, baseball and softball players offered tips on hitting and running the bases.
Students with special needs offered more intangible lessons.
“You see all these kids with a bunch of energy and it gives you life,” said Basil Rodts, a senior baseball player at Millbrook High School.
Andrew Blair, a senior with special needs at Wake Forest High, said he enjoyed being part of a team and hearing fans cheer.
Blair said he’d like to play against Heritage, his school’s cross-town rival. Wake Forest didn’t play Heritage this year, facing off against Leesville Road instead.
“I want to play Heritage to beat them,” he said.