All kids need a buddy. Two San Diego County organizations provide awesome peer friendship and mentorship opportunities for children of nearly every age and stage. Learn how to get your kids involved.

Little League Challenger Division
Nearly a dozen Little League programs throughout the San Diego region offer a unique opportunity for kids with special needs who have a passion for baseball.

Sluggers ages 4–18 are invited to swing for the fences as part of the Challenger Division—a program that pairs ballplayers with challenged youngsters who have physical limitations or suffer from such conditions as Down Syndrome or autism.

“This is an adaptive baseball program where we invite volunteers to play alongside our Challengers so that they can experience the game of baseball,” says Little League Challenger President, Sam Ranck. “The goal is to give kids the chance to play in an environment that is structured to their abilities.”

Volunteer ballplayers—some from the league and others from organizations such as Boy Scouts and local high school teams—partner with the Challengers at each position on the field to coach and cheer them on. They also assist the young gamers in making the plays, if needed. The parents? They sit in the stands and cheer with their cameras trained on the field, of course.

“The program started as a grassroots effort from parents who wanted their children with special needs to have a chance to play ball,” Ranck says. “The Little League officials thought it was a great idea. We felt we should be doing something for these kids.”

Ranck says that the feedback from families and volunteers over the years has been tremendous. “We get a lot of thank you’s from parents. But we also hear from the volunteers about friendships that blossom from this program, carrying over into school and life. [The Challenger Division] is a great way to promote inclusion,” Ranck says. Scroll to the bottom for a list of local programs.

Best Buddies
Best Buddies International also pairs general education students with children with special needs for the purpose of growing positive peer relationships. Also launched in 1989, the organization has several thriving programs in San Diego County.

Melissa Peterson, program manager for Best Buddies California, estimated that more than 1,000 students participate in Best Buddies within 12 schools in San Diego. Two more schools plan to join the program in the 2015–16 school year.

According to, “Best Buddies programs engage participants in each of the 50 United States, and in 50 countries around the world. Best Buddies’ seven formal programs—Best Buddies middle schools, high schools, colleges, citizens, e-Buddies, jobs and ambassadors—positively impact nearly 700,000 individuals with and without disabilities worldwide.”

“This is really more about helping kids grow friendships, not so much a mentorship. We try to stress that the buddies establish a friendship that goes beyond the Best Buddies program,” Peterson says. This is accomplished with school-based groups that are created and led by general education students who have been trained on how to engage students with disabilities with a genuine friendship.

Fun activities such as trips to Disneyland, movies, bowling and the Best Buddy Ball held annually in May in San Diego get the ball rolling. The result is often lifelong friendships that extend beyond the classroom.

Part of each group’s goals is to continue recruiting new members so that the Best Buddy program thrives. For those going off to college, there is an established program at San Diego State University tailored for adults.

Best Buddies International not only provides kids with special needs the opportunity for inclusion, but student volunteers with a chance to grow in their acceptance and understanding of others. “Friendships form fast,” says Peterson.

San Diego County Little League programs offering the Challenger Division:
Imperial Beach

Lake Murray

Mira Mesa West

Peninsula Little League: Point Loma

Rancho Penasquitos American

San Carlos

San Diego American

Scripps Ranch National

Spring Valley

Twin Hills South Bay

University City

Kerri S. Mabee is a proud contributor to San Diego Family Magazine.