NORTH KINGSTOWN — A group of little ones in blue hats run the bases on the front lawn of St. Bernard Church as coaches and parents enthusiastically point in the direction of home plate. Another group of “Lil Saints” swing at tee-balls with all their might — dozens of them learning the basic skills of America’s favorite pastime.
On Tuesday evenings in June the parish hosted hour-long tee-ball clinics for boys and girls ages 3-6 on the church grounds. The popular program, which began in the 1970s, ran successfully for 25 years and after a hiatus is now currently organized by Ed Cooney.
In his life, Cooney has found a couple things are “the great equalizer” in terms of getting people together — kids and sports. Cooney shared that when he mentioned this program to Father John “Jack” Unsworth, four years ago, immediately the pastor said, “Tell me what you need; I would love to be able to support you.”
“I attribute the success of the program solely to Father Jack’s willingness to open the program to people outside the parish because it does allow people, who for a variety of reasons may not be currently involved in the Catholic faith or this parish, an opportunity to come and participate in a program that may change some of their preconceived notions of our religion and experience a truly welcoming environment to practice our faith and gather,” Cooney said.
Father Unsworth said that the program is open to all families, even if they are not parishioners. Some, he said, have actually joined the parish because of the program, which continues to serve as a unique way to make families feel welcome to the church community.
“It established this parish as a resource for children of the area,” said Father Unsworth. “We love to be a part of this and are happy the league can use our facility. It’s been really positive and brings families together. Isn’t that the mission of the church? It’s wonderful to see it revived.”
The late Bob Viera worked closely with Father Charles E. Fountain to create the original tee-ball program in the early 1970s. Now, Viera’s son Gary is one of Cooney’s dedicated volunteers.
“It was in this program that I and countless other North Kingstown youth learned how to play baseball,” said Cooney. “I can say without hesitation that without Bob’s vision and dedication some 40 years ago we would not be offering this program today.”
For Cooney, to bring the program back was born out of a love for the game and a desire to share a bit of his childhood experience with his own children.
“It was also an attempt to reinvigorate the youthful family community I saw on display growing up, particularly at St. Bernard’s, but also throughout the town.”
Giant smiles are almost all that can be seen under the oversized helmets of Kate and Brett Knight’s little boys Ben, 5, and Brody, 3.
“I think it’s great to introduce them to a new sport,” said Kate. “It’s been so much fun for them.”
This year’s three-week program welcomed 42 children to St. Bernard Church and Cooney expressed his gratitude to all of the incredible parents who jumped right in to help as coaches and cooks.
“Weekly, I put out a call for volunteers and I can say 95 percent of the time people are willing to get their hands dirty,” he said. “I have been incredibly encouraged with people’s willingness to help. This engagement is very good to see and supports my theory that if you ask someone to help they will be more than happy to, but sometimes all you have to do is ask.”
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