As April began, Blue Angels softball players continued to cross home plate, steal second and make diving plays. But it was no longer about winning.
The girls of this Delray Beach team became Angels 4 Autism.
What started as a simple T-shirt design by the team’s first baseman evolved into 47 teams of girls, ages 8 to 15, from all over Florida visiting Palm Beach County in the inaugural Angels 4 Autism tournament April 1-2.
The event was sponsored by the USSSA (United States Specialty Sports Association), the Blue Angels Team, and Lake Lytal / Palm Beach county Parks and Recreation Department.
“This has been an amazing journey and we have the entire month to raise money for such an amazing cause,” said Blue Angels player Sarah Green, of Boca Raton. “But more important, we can bring awareness every day by making sure we include people with autism and their families into our community with acceptance and love.”
This inaugural event started last year with an idea from Green, 13, who designed T-shirts to sell for an autism charity in April (National Autism Awareness Month).
Sarah’s 8-year-old brother, Alex, is diagnosed with autism and navigates a world that doesn’t always understand him.
Sarah took the idea of selling T-shirts to her coach, Marco Spells, who thought a tournament would be a better idea. He, in turn, took the tournament idea to Gordon Patterson, the USSSA Florida state director, who liked it and set things in motion.
Spells added the name, “Angels 4 Autism”, and the original T-shirt design changed to add the new logo.
“We just had no idea it would be so popular,” Spells said. “Most first-time tournaments have 20 to 25 teams sign up. We had that amount in our first week, and it kept growing.”
By January, Spells, Patterson, and Sarah’s dad, Andrew, knew the tournament – and its message – was becoming bigger than them and the team.
“Angels, to me, connotes anyone doing a beautiful selfless act for another,” Andrew Green said. “This has made all participants involved — players, coaches, volunteers, and field staff — feel they’ve done something good for a worthy cause. Kids and adults with autism need support, understanding and protecting. And I think we did a good job sharing that with everyone.”
For Andrew Green and the Angels, it was important that the tournament’s mission remain “pure,” and stay loyal to promoting awareness about autism. It couldn’t be just another tourney to compete for trophies.
Angels 4 Autism was promoted heavily on social media with autism awareness information, such as statistics and words of understanding.
As participants approached each venue, they were greeted by detailed signs (there were three separate complexes). Banners were simple; they thanked everyone for helping a person with autism.
There were opening ceremonies (usually reserved for national tournaments), custom trophies, and rings to winners and runners up in six different divisions.
But this story doesn’t end with Palm Beach County – or even the state of Florida.
Patterson sent the idea and the Blue Angels’ logo design to other USSSA State directors throughout the country. Now, there are 11 Angels 4 Autism tournaments established in seven states (Florida, Georgia - four, Indiana, Louisiana - two, Virginia, Texas and Washington). Altogether, more than 500 teams from across the country will be playing by the end of April, expanding both information and donations to Autism charities locally and nationally.
In Florida alone, about $5,000 has already been raised by Angels for Autism for autism charities.
But Andrew Green stressed that it’s more about raising awareness and understanding about autism.
“Many parents came up to me to discuss their child, their niece, nephew or friend down the street,” Andrews said. “They just wanted to talk, and really I just wanted to listen, and commiserate, or offer a father’s suggestion that may just help someone who struggles.”
Before Patterson gave out a set of trophies, he gave a speech that autistic and special needs children need not just our understanding, but our commitment to protect them. He asked the players to raise their right hands and pledge to never bully these children at school or anywhere else.
A mother and her daughter came up to him after, he said later. The girl was crying. She said she was one of those girls who picked on a kid in her class. She told him she wouldn’t in the future and would stand up to the others who did.
As for Alex, Andrew’s son and Sarah’s brother, he received a medal for a first pitch, a USSSA championship ring as well as a custom-painted softball with the Angels 4 Autism logo. He spent most of the weekend wearing them and showing off.
His awards stood out like the blue socks that Spells got for the Blue Angels to wear last season, when this whole project began. Blue is the official color for autism, which is why it’s so fitting that the lead team is the Blue Angels.
Sarah, who spoke during the opening ceremonies, hopes that softball ignites a spark in Alex, and all the others on the autism spectrum who took part in this inaugural tournament.
“Who knows? one of the kids that threw the first pitch, or tossed a coin for the softball tournament, might think about trying out for organized sports next year,” Sarah said. “That would be my dream come true.”