Jackie Riddell’s son Killian safely played in the recreational baseball program for as long as he could. His needs were greater than those of his peers, so Jackie knew he needed something different. As part of the Calipatria Little League in Imperial Valley, Riddell started a Challenger Division, an inclusive program that teaches traditional Little League rules with less structured play for kids who need to use adaptive equipment, more time to get to the bases, or social breaks.

When soccer season came, Riddell formed her own team of seven players and discovered another team of kids with special needs in nearby Calexico, run by mom Paulette Ramirez. Ramirez was initially concerned that the physical needs of the two teams were too different for cooperative play, but after a season of playing separately, the two groups merged to form the Goleros Soccer Team. In two years, they grew from 14 to 32 players and watched student confidence skyrocket.

The enthusiastic moms formed the nonprofit Best S.T.E.P. Forward and looked for their next outlet. “We have always tried to incorporate music into training,” says Riddell, “so we thought we’d start a dance group.” Other parents were skeptical because none of them were dancers, but they noticed that the kids were already starting to express themselves through music. One parent’s adult daughter is a DJ who loves to dance. She put together a YouTube channel with music and dance lessons, and the kids met in person twice a week to practice her choreography. The ADM Dreamers Dance Crew became their most popular program with 45 participants. In 2019 they even performed at the Cattle Call Mini Rodeo in front of thousands. “It was amazing,” says Ramirez, “the kids loved it!”

Drummer Rickie Fitness from the Aquabats started a drumming class that meets virtually every other Thursday. His likeness was added to the volunteer-painted mural that spans three sides of their Calipatria meeting space as a tribute of his commitment to the kids. They also created a community garden entirely from donations, laid sod, planted fruit trees, and created a sensory space and a LEGO wall.

Dads Junior Reyes and David Mercado recently installed a Little Free Library donated by the Special Needs Resource Foundation of San Diego. They also spent hours welding frames in the Imperial Valley heat for their first ever Soap Box Derby. The first prototype race is in August 2022, but parents hope to host three to four races per year with funny car themes. Come see a few of their racers in San Diego at the annual All-Inclusive Day of Play and Resource Fair on September 25, 2021.

When asked what’s next for the kids from Best S.T.E.P., Riddell says the nonprofit hopes to form a theater troupe. Killian has echolalia resulting from Autism, so he scripts much of what he communicates and easily memorizes anything musical. He is not the only Best S.T.E.P. participant who likes to express himself through performance, so they anticipate a lot of kids will sign up as health regulations allow.

In Brawley, the Cattle Call Rodeo and parade has been a beloved staple for years. Julie Reeves saw the opportunity for a smaller, shorter, inclusive event dedicated to children with disabilities and their friends and family. Reeves starts coordinating the invitation-only Cattle Call Mini Rodeo in the summer. All reservations must be made by mid-September for the November show. Attendees cite the hometown, grassroots feel, the kids’ love of rodeo clowns and the chance to connect with other Imperial Valley families as reasons they look forward to the event all year. It was postponed in 2020 due to COVID-19, but the ADM Crew is hoping 2021 brings another opportunity to see friends, show off their moves and hopefully take home another trophy for their parade float.

There’s always room for more friends and volunteers! For information about Best S.T.E.P. visit www.beststepforward.life.

For info about the Cattle Call Mini Rodeo, call Julie Reeves at 760-960-5805.

Emily Dolton is a resource specialist, artist and mom of two, one with 22q 11.2 Deletion Syndrome