Connecting the bat with the baseball was no problem for Hunter Burke, who made contact every time he swung. He just didn’t swing hard enough, so the ball didn’t travel far enough to reach fair territory.
The result was two strikeouts in two at-bats for Burke. But as far as he and those who care about him are concerned, the experience was a home run.
Burke is a 6-year-old pupil at The Next Step Academy, an Oak Forest-area nonprofit that works with children and young adults who have autism and other developmental delays. He had never played organized sports until March 7, when he made his T-ball debut for the Huskies in the Oaks Dads’ Club.
Burke smiled often and blended in with his teammates while playing right field and catcher, cheering when he was in the dugout and high-fiving each of the opposing Bobcats after the game. Afterward, he walked off the field with his family and enjoyed a snow cone from the concession stand.
“He went up and did his best, so overall I would say it was a win,” said Next Step owner Lauren Abel, whose son is a teammate of Burke’s. “I think he did fantastic.”
It’s unclear when Burke will get to play again, because the Oaks Dads’ Club suspended play less than a week later. Following the lead of Houston ISD and amidst concerns about the spread of COVID-19, the upper-respiratory disease caused by the new strain of coronavirus, the area youth sports association has called off all its baseball, softball and soccer games and practices until at least March 31.
That means ODC’s annual Opening Day parade and celebration, scheduled for March 28, will not happen as planned. And more than 500 kids who participate in the longstanding organization are stuck on the sidelines.
ODC president Danielle Soria-Orozco called it a “very difficult time” for the organization, but she’s glad that a special youngster with special needs got a chance to play. She said other kids with autism have played with ODC in recent years.
“Our organization is about giving children the opportunity to play, no matter what,” she said. “It makes me incredibly proud that we can make that happen.”
Burke’s mother, Shelly, and maternal grandparents, Bill and Peggy Davis, were even more excited to watch him play a team sport for the first time. They sat in the stands and cheered him on, with Bill Davis occasionally walking down to the fence line to take photos.
They said Hunter had not previously shown an interest or inclination toward baseball or sports in general, but they signed him up to play at the urging of Abel. Her husband, Brandon, is in charge of recreation at Next Step, and had helped Hunter with rock-climbing, and they thought T-ball would be a good experience for him.
Peggy Davis said she initially was “terrified” for her grandson, worrying that he might be made fun of by other players. But his first game went smoothly, with Hunter noticeably enjoying himself and taking his strikeouts in stride.
“It’s really cool,” Bill Davis said during the game. “Our hearts are just beaming with pride right now.”
Shelly Burke said her son, who Lauren Abel described as high-functioning autistic, started showing signs when he was about 3 years old. Hunter did not meet expected milestones in terms of verbal skills and eye contact.
His family said he still struggles with social skills and communication, but he’s displayed proficiency in other areas, including academics. Bill Davis said Hunter has an exceptional memory and is interested in the way things work.
He also likes to play the piano.
“He’s very smart,” Shelly Burke said. “He’s very good at math and reading and music.”
Bill Davis said Hunter’s social and motor skills have improved during his year or so at Next Step. The family moved from Corpus Christi to Houston so Hunter could attend the academy, which opened in 2005 and is located at 5400 Mitchelldale St. C1.
Next Step also is partnering with Mytiburger, a longtime neighborhood restaurant at 2211 W. 43rd St. Two of its other pupils, a 16-year-old and 20-year-old, are working two-hour shifts twice per week at Mytiburger as part of an unpaid internship that teaches them job skills.
They also were helping at the concession stand at Oaks Dads’ Club, which is run by Mytiburger owner Shawn Salyers. He said his 11-year-old daughter, Debra, is high-functioning autistic and goes to tutoring at Next Step.
“So I support what they do,” Salyers said of the academy.
Hunter’s family credited the support of the Abels and Oaks Dads’ Club for allowing him to feel like a normal kid alongside his peers. Brandon Abel is an assistant coach for the Huskies, whose head coach is John Anguiano.
Shelly Burke said the T-ball experience could be a “huge step” in her son’s development.
The next step for Hunter, when he gets to play again, is to make a play in the field or make better contact with the ball. Brandon Abel said Hunter usually swings harder than he did March 7, so nervousness or the pressure of a crowd could have been a factor.
He has plenty of time to practice at home before playing in his next game.
“Batting was really tough, so he’ll work on that,” Lauren Abel said. “He’s just got to get some hip rotation.”