1200 Weimer Hall | P.O. Box 118405
Gainesville, FL 32611
(352) 392-5551

A service of the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida.

© 2024 WUFT / Division of Media Properties
News and Public Media for North Central Florida
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

UF Student Starts Special Needs Baseball League

Ella Zsembik waited all day to play baseball.

“She was always excited to go,” said Barbara Zsembik, Ella’s mother. “She talked about it the whole day when it was coming up.”

TOPBaseball gave Ella something to look forward to, Zsembik said. It gave her the chance to experience what most kids get to experience — having a team and getting together every week.

Alex Bello, a fourth-year student at the University of Florida, created TOPBaseball (The Outreach Program for Baseball) for children with special needs. TOPBaseball, an offshoot of Gainesville Soccer Alliance’s TOPSoccer, is a program designed to provide children with special needs the opportunity to play baseball with their peers and volunteers. The TOPBaseball league completed its first season this month and will start its next season in the spring.

“Providing TOPBaseball in Gainesville gave them another sport they could participate in,” Bello said. “It gave them another league that they could be a part of, another team they’re on, another sport they get to play.”

Bello’s younger brother played baseball growing up and his team volunteered for the West Pines Miracle League, a baseball league for children with special needs.

When she was in eighth grade, Bello said she started volunteering with the Miracle League as well. She was paired with her buddy Amanda, who was deaf and had other physical disabilities.

“I absolutely loved it from day one,” Bello said. “It was every Friday night from July to November so I never went to a high school football game. I couldn’t imagine my life without it.”

Before Bello left for college she wanted to leave something behind with the league to make sure it would continue. She raised over $5,600 for the Miracle League to buy equipment, uniforms and trophies, she said.

The league honored Bello with its first humanitarian award. It was named in her honor as the "Alexsandra Bello Humanitarian Award."

Coming to college, Bello felt like something was missing. She found TOPSoccer the spring of her freshman year.

Bello told TOPSoccer Coach Chris Drew about her hometown Miracle League and how she wanted to start one in Gainesville, she said. Drew let Bello host a baseball day at the end of every TOPSoccer season, called TOPBaseball.

Now three years later, Bello has been able to start her own league.

“I feel like everything has come full circle,” Bello said.

Drew, director of TOPSoccer, said he remembers telling Bello he was interested in expanding the program to other sports.

“Her face lit up! It was amazing! It was like telling a Gator football fan that we just won the SEC title,” Drew said. “It was that kind of glow. She was just beaming.”

Drew, who is a father of two children with special needs, said many kids with special needs would never have the opportunity to play little league sports. They could not play at a traditional well-bodied little league that a lot of American kids take for granted, he said.

“By providing them these opportunities, we are helping a huge population that is usually under-served and under-provided for,” Drew said.

The families that get involved are absolutely shocked, he said.

“I can’t tell you how many parents who have children with autism think their kid will never be able to do anything that quote-on-quote normal kids do,” Drew said. “We have families who come out with an autistic child and have a jaw-dropping experience because their kid is playing like all the other kids. That experience is so precious.”

Zsembik said it is important for any community to have a program like this, but it is especially important for a smaller community like Gainesville. Smaller communities do not have as many opportunities for kids with special needs to do routine activities, so you really depend on someone to come out and organize them, she said.

“I really like the way TOPBaseball pulls the university into the community,” Zsembik said. “I think it’s a great experience for the undergraduate students to see what life is like outside of the places and people they usually have contact with.”

Stefan Cevallos, a volunteer for TOPBaseball, worked with a baseball team for children with special needs while in high school.

“I find it very rewarding. That is why I keep coming back,” said Cevallos, a second-year student at UF. “It is really special because we take something like being able to catch and throw a ball for granted, whereas some of these kids will never get that chance.”

Cevallos pitched for both games this season and will continue volunteering in the spring.

“From getting to know Alex, she’s been wanting this and has been trying to get this going for a while now,” Cevallos said. “She’s put so much time and effort into TOPSoccer and had the opportunity to start up her own thing — TOPBaseball — and it was really rewarding to help her accomplish her goal.”

Matan Ozery, a third-year student at UF, has volunteered with Bello at TOPSoccer since his freshman year.

The simple high fives and smiles are the moments when you realize you are making a difference, Ozery said. The kids are so excited for TOPBaseball and TOPSoccer because these games are the main times when “they get to run around and really have a great time and learn these awesome sports.”

You see the parents watching from the bleachers and see them happy that their kids are smiling, Ozery said.

“I think we all feel very blessed with the opportunity in health that each of us have had, and having experienced and really witnessed people who weren’t so lucky, it makes you feel like it’s almost a duty, that you should use your opportunity and your blessings to be altruistic and to help out others,” Ozery said. “People do it all the time, in different ways, and shapes and forms, and this just happens to be how we like to help.”

Zsembik said Bello does this work because she really believes it’s the right thing to do.

“It is so selfless, and yet so well done,” Zsembik said. “It’s just a lovely balance of commitment, and selflessness, and yet competency at the same time.”

Drew said he doesn’t want Bello to start a program and have it end when she graduates.

“We need someone else to step in that role,” Drew said. “I would be happy if we have someone that does half as good a job as she does.”

Drew said he would love to have at least four or five baseball dates set for the spring. The goal would be at least seven or eight.

“We need donations so that TOPBaseball can be self-sufficient,” Drew said. “Because Alex and the volunteers are so good at what they do, we will definitely grow.”

Zsembik said Bello is trying to find a way in which TOPBaseball will live long past her.

“It is going to be a nugget of something that she began, but has its own kind of legs and life and it can sustain itself,” Zsembik said. “I think that really shows the kind of selflessness that someone like that has.”

Zsembik said Ella is looking forward to TOPBaseball’s second season.

“Ella is already asking when it is going to start again. She is always ready to go,” Zsembik said. “She is excited to see which kids and which buddies are coming back.”

Ozery said for a first season, it was definitely successful.

Ozery said, “With each year I think there is going to be an exponential amount of people that really love doing this, so I think it is definitely not only going to survive, but grow.”


Michelle is a reporter who can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.