Flowood teenager sees the need, helps capture a miracle
RIDGELAND, Miss. (AP) — Joseph Voynik arrived before sunup one day in November to watch two dozen cement trucks roll into Hite Wolcott Park in Ridgeland.
The 16-year-old from Flowood stood as close as he could to see each truck deliver its load of gray sludge onto a youth baseball field in the northeast section of the complex.
In Joseph’s mind’s eye, he saw much more than muck and mud oozing down the trucks’ yellow troughs. He saw children smiling, laughing, playing, cheering. He saw youngsters breaking the invisible chains from their wheelchairs, walkers and crutches with the help of volunteers.
He pictured kids playing baseball, many of them for the first time.
“Every child, no matter their condition, should be able to play baseball,” he says. “That’s what all of this comes down to — giving children with disabilities a place to play.”
Voynik led the effort to raise $500,000 to renovate a field with rubberized turf that makes it easier for wheelchairs to roll across and with dugouts that are wheelchair accessible.
Voynik and his parents formed a nonprofit — The Miracle League of Central Mississippi, which is part of The Miracle League based in Conyers, Georgia. It has more than 300 chapters in the U.S., Canada, Puerto Rico and Australia with approximately 200,000 participants.
McComb is believed to be the only town in Mississippi already with a Miracle League team. It opened the 2018 season April 7 with five teams.
A ribbon cutting and two games involving the four teams at Ridgeland are set for April 20 at 5 p.m. After that, the inaugural season will consist of games every Tuesday from April 24 through May 22.
“I believe this is going to impact the entire Jackson-area community much more than anyone thinks right now,” says Shayla McKissock, a sophomore from Bryant, Arkansas, and a member of the Mississippi College women’s softball team. “I’ve volunteered at a league like this back home. I’ve seen it change the hearts of parents and kids. It completely changed me.
“It’s something about the sheer joy on the kids’ faces when they are playing. It gets to you. And I can’t wait to volunteer here.”
The Voyniks’ research discovered more than 8,300 children with disabilities in school systems across central Mississippi. The need is obvious.
“That’s what Joseph couldn’t understand,” says his mom, Tammy, 47, who serves as the chapter’s chairwoman. “Why wasn’t there a place for these children to play? That really bothered him.”
Marty and Melinda Letchworth of Puckett have 11-year-old twins — Brendan and Christopher — with cerebral palsy. Both are in wheelchairs.
“We never imagined having a child with a disability,” Melinda says, “but they are a true blessing to us and those who know them.
“They are kids like any others. They want to go outside and play. They want to be involved. And they want to play sports. What child should be denied that opportunity just because of a disability?”
Brendan and Christopher are signed up to play at Ridgeland. “They are counting the days until the first game,” Melinda says.
Tammy, an attorney at Methodist Rehabilitation Center in Jackson, has used a wheelchair since she was 15 when a car crash left her paralyzed below the waist.
Mom and son want this clearly known: Her condition is not what led Joseph on this mission.
“Yes, my mom’s in a chair and I’ve always been around people with disabilities,” he says. “If anything, that has helped me understand that people in wheelchairs are no different than you and me.
“But this project is not about my mom. It’s about the kids.”
With Joseph, it’s always been about less fortunate kids. He recalls a field day at Northwest Rankin Middle School.
“We were all outside playing and competing, but there was a group of kids who were developmentally challenged. They weren’t allowed to come out with the rest of us,” he says. “I felt bad for them, and I couldn’t understand why they were kept inside.
“I guess that has stuck with me more than anything.”
Joseph was born into a family of Pittsburgh Pirates fans, especially his paternal grandparents, who grew up in Pittsburgh, and his dad, Eddie, 46, a medical device salesman.
In the spring of his seventh-grade year when he was 12, Joseph noticed advertisements between innings that talked about the Pirates’ off-the-field charities. One of them involved The Miracle League.
“Joseph’s face just lit up,” Eddie says. “He said, ‘Dad, wouldn’t it be great to volunteer at one of those games?’ We started checking around and there wasn’t a league around here. That’s when he became determined to get a field here.”
Most 12-year-olds aren’t focused on changing their community — or believing it is possible.
“That’s one thing Tammy and I have always emphasized to Joseph and his sister (Anna, 14),” Eddie says. “We’ve always told them, ’Don’t settle. Shoot for big things, whether it’s in education or something you want to do in life. It’s OK to try and fail. And don’t listen to people who say, ‘Aw, nobody can do that.’ ”
It has taken four years for the dream to reach the doorstep of reality. A quarter of Joseph’s life so far.
The first step was finding a city “that could see Joseph’s vision,” Tammy says.
Ridgeland started a similar league about 20 years ago, but the games were played on a traditional field. It was hard to push the wheelchairs around the bases. Turned out, Ridgeland was ready to try it again.
“We went around to several cities, but Ridgeland was the most supportive from the get-go,” Tammy says. ” And one of the greatest things about the field in Ridgeland is that it is part of a quad. There will be kids playing on three other fields adjacent to this one. We think it’s huge for them to feel included in the whole ballpark experience.”
After landing the site, the Voyniks formed the nonprofit. Joseph began raising the needed funds, talking with local corporations and businesses.
“It was eye-opening to watch him do that,” Tammy says. “Joseph is a quiet kid and when I was 12 and 13 there is no way I would’ve gotten up in front of people and made presentations the way he did.
“But people were extremely receptive to the idea.”
Says Eddie: “Our supporters were as adamant as we were about getting this done.”
A few sponsors gave amounts between $50,000 and $115,000. The largest donation came from Zeita Parker of Jackson: $250,000.
Parker participated in the groundbreaking ceremony in October 2016 but died of cancer last November.
Parker and her late husband, Wayne, had anonymously given to disadvantaged children for years in the Jackson area.
“All the donations meant so much, but we felt like naming the field in honor of the Parkers was the right thing to do,” Tammy says. “So the kids will be playing on Parker Miracle Field.”
Meanwhile, Joseph still enjoys the life of a teenager. He is a junior at Jackson Prep and works at Lost Pizza after school and on weekends. He enjoys rock music by bands such as The Clash and the Rolling Stones. He can’t get enough of the movie “The Godfather.” He plans to study finance in college. And he continues to dream of seeing the Pirates in the World Series during his lifetime.
In fact, the Pirates are aware of Joseph’s efforts. The Voyniks visit Pittsburgh each summer to watch the Pirates play, and the team’s dugout reporter Robby Incmikoski has interviewed Joseph during broadcasts. The Pirates also keep their players with Mississippi ties — Adam Frazier (Mississippi State) and Corey Dickerson (Brookhaven Academy and Meridian Community College) — up to date on the league’s progress.
Joseph takes it all in stride.
“I’m just a regular guy,” he says. “I don’t feel like I’m doing something crazy helping get this field built — but I have to admit, it feels pretty awesome.”
Information from: The Clarion-Ledger, http://www.clarionledger.com