Johnny Flores Jr./Coachella Unincorporated
Disabled youth are enriched by the benefits of the Challenger baseball league. They play every Friday night at Bagdouma Park. Credit: Johnny Flores Jr./Coachella Unincorporated

Javier Avila and Calani Raceles are two young men with mental challenges doing the unimaginable—playing baseball.

“At first, my son didn’t even want to show up. He couldn’t catch a ball, let alone hold a bat. Through this program, his hand-eye coordination skills have improved, and he can do all those things,” says Enia Raceles, Calani’s mother. “Now he looks forward to each Friday so he can hit again and talk to his baseball friends.”

Both Javier and Calani are players in the Challenger division of Coachella Little League. The program is made up of more than 20 physically and mentally challenged young people with disabilities including autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy. The division started in 2010 and is the only one in the Coachella Valley.

“As the only division of its kind here in the Coachella Valley, we want to teach everyone with a disability that you can play a sport and that it is possible,” says Esmeralda Ortega, vice president of the Challenger division.

Every Friday at 7 p.m. at Bagdouma Park, 51723 Douma St., these young people get together under the guidance of dedicated volunteers of all ages. Together, they work on the fundamentals of hitting and catching and conclude with a game against each other or against another team.

But this isn’t an ordinary game: No score is kept. There are no outs recorded, and each player must bat and record a hit before the next side can do so.

“Most teenagers get together on Friday nights, go to the movies, hang out, play video games,” says Alex Rodriguez, secretary of the Challenger division. “For these kids, this is their Friday night, getting together on a Friday night with their friends outside of school, and they play baseball.

“They’re just like me and you. They have drama, hopes, dreams. Only a disability separates us.”

Javier’s father, Jose Avila, is grateful that this program exists and wishes more programs like these were available for children like his son.

“A lot of these kids can’t do much like me and you. Programs like these help increase hand-eye coordination, motor skills, sportsmanship and, above all, socialization,” says Avila. “Here, they’re not outsiders, but just another person like me and you. Here, disabilities don’t exist and friendships are formed.”

To join or volunteer with Challenger division, please contact Esmeralda Ortega at (760) 972-9053 or Alex Rodriguez at (760) 238-2690. Johnny Flores Jr. is a reporter for Coachella Unincorporated, a youth media startup in the East Coachella Valley, funded by the Building Healthy Communities Initiative of the California Endowment and operated by New America Media in San Francisco. The purpose is to report on issues in the community that can bring about change. “Coachella Unincorporated” refers to the region youth journalists cover, but also to the unincorporated communities of the Eastern Valley with the idea to “incorporate” the East Valley into the mainstream Coachella Valley mindset. For more information, visit