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April 29, 2014 | 03:22 PMFor two weeks, former Lakeland School teacher John Swanson practiced with his son. They walked out the regulation distance between the pitcher’s mound and home plate for a Major League field and faced one another, 60 feet and 6 inches between them. Swanson pitched, he said, determined to make it across the plate on the night it counted.
In early April, Swanson was contacted by the Milwaukee Brewers and given a rare opportunity to throw the ceremonial first pitch at Miller Park on April 22 before the Brewers played the Padres. After 12 years of working with the Geneva Lakes Family YMCA to teach baseball and all its opportunity and romance to children with special needs. Swanson’s efforts had not gone unnoticed.
He was selected to be honored as the first Milwaukee Brewers Community Achiever of the 2014 season after Carole Nevin, a woman who has seen the results of Swanson’s work first hand, submitted his nomination.
Swanson, with the help of the Geneva Lake Y, founded the “Dream Team,” a baseball team for area children with special needs that competes for five weeks every summer against other YMCA summer league teams.
When Swanson first started the Dream Team in 2002, he had between eight and 10 players, he said, and since, the team’s ranks have swelled. The Dream Team’s 72 athletes are coached by Swanson and a staff of four other volunteers — Pat Jones, Jeff Sonn, Michael Merlo and Dianna Wells.
“And we have 40 high school and middle school kids that help us,” Swanson said. “They gave over 1,000 hours of community volunteer time last summer doing this. That’s a lot of hours. It’s probably, after the Jaycees, its the next biggest volunteer group in Lake Geneva.”
Swanson said while working at Lakeland, a school in Elkhorn for children with learning disabilities, he noticed that there were no opportunities for the kids to play baseball.
“They really had no place for these kids, the kids with special needs, to play baseball,” Swanson said. “And that’s what started it. And the Y agreed to it, and we’ve been going strong ever since.”
Nevin got involved with the Dream Team after her 14-year-old cousin joined three or four years ago, she said, and she was blown away by Swanson’s dedication to the kids.
“I’ve known John for quite a while,” Nevin said. “I’ve been going out there the past three years and watching every game, and what he does with those children is just amazing.”
Nevin said that her cousin looks forward to playing for the Dream Team all year.
“Oh he loves it, he just can’t wait,” Nevin said.
She said when they’re getting ready to take him to the games he says, “Is it time to go? Is it time to go?”
Swanson also volunteers to help train adult and youth swim teams for the Special Olympics, Nevin said, and she felt that what he did for kids with special needs needed recognition, so she reached out to the Brewers organization and nominated Swanson for the Community Achiever Award.
The Brewers agreed.
And on April 22, a Tuesday night, Swanson found himself on the field at Miller Park in front of more than 25,000 fans.
“I’ve been to Miller Park many, many times, but I never realized how big it was until I got out on that field,” Swanson said. “It’s gigantic.”
The height of the mound surprised him when he approached it to throw the pitch, he said.
“It was 18 inches,” Swanson said. “You never think it’s that high, but it was higher than I’ve been practicing.”
His pitch didn’t quite go the distance, Swanson said, but that was OK.
“It was a lot of fun,” Swanson said. “It was really a very special night. The Brewers made it so nice.”
Nevin, an “all-weather” Brewers fan, as she put it, agreed. She was glad to see Swanson get some recognition for all his years of service.
“He relates to the children so well, John does,” Nevin said. “He’s just a natural at it.”