Softball experience enhances lives
CHRISTIANSBURG — They say she’s “just one of the girls,” but that seems to come up short in describing the many roles Anna Hodges plays on the Christiansburg Middle School softball team.
Rules enforcer, conditioning coach and gossip queen would all likely be fitting titles for the physically-challenged 14-year-old, along with her official one – team manager.
At the age of 3, Hodges was officially diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a condition that requires her to use a wheelchair and makes her Ipad a vital tool for most communication.
It was about that same time she developed a love for softball.
“She’s been coming to her dad’s games since she was in a stroller,” her mother Sonia Hodges said.
Throughout elementary school, Anna Hodges’ attendance at the games was unwavering and her love for the sport grew, as did her love for being social and interacting with her peers at birthday parties and group activities.
As she entered middle school, however, staying social became increasingly difficult.
“As they’ve gotten older, the birthday parties have became fewer,” her father Bernie Hodges said.
“Sixth and seventh grade were really hard for her socially,” Sonia Hodges added.
Despite attending the fully-inclusive CMS, the school’s athletic director Angie Quesenberry noticed Anna Hodges’ lack of social outlets and approached head softball coach Steele Whisnant about the possibility of Anna helping out with the team.
“I thought it was a great idea,” Whisnant said.
Whisnant also teaches physical education at CMS and said it had been his pleasure to have Hodges in his first period class, which begins at 7:40 a.m.
“She’s one of the few wide awake students, bright and early, every morning,” he said.
Whisnant was quick to hand the eighth-grader the title of team manager, along with several responsibilities.
Before each practice, it is now Anna Hodges’ responsibility to inform the team whether practice will be indoors or outside. After each practice, she makes sure the team did a good job clearing out the dug out.
“She keeps us in line. When we’re not doing something we’re supposed to, she lets us know,” teammate Brooke Stump said.
Anna Hodges attends all of the team’s practices alongside her aid, Kayla Dunbar, who also works with her at school and volunteered to be there without pay to make the season possible.
During the team’s practice Anna Hodges spends much of her time pointing out areas where she thinks they could improve and letting Whisnant know when any player fails to run the full distance of a sprint.
Dunbar recalled one practice where Anna Hodges used her mechanical wheelchair to play tag with the players, each of them having to do 10 push-ups if caught by Anna Hodges.
Don’t let her fool you though, Anna Hodges isn’t exactly all business all the time.
During games, she can could easily be identified as the team’s head socialite and has been known to partake in the age-old middle school tradition of gossip. So much so, many of her Blue Demons teammates nicknamed her “Gabby.”
She’s also become a master prankster, and according to Whisnant, she thoroughly enjoys watching the head coach frantically search the dugout for the game ball while she holds it under a blanket on her lap.
It’s such light-hearted acts her teammates seem to value most about having Anna Hodges on the team.
“When everyone’s feeling down, she’s there to cheer us up. She’ll laugh, smile, and let us know it’s OK,” teammate Victoria Shockley said.
Quesenberry credited Anna Hodges with more than just keeping the mood light in the dugout and said she believed Anna had helped the team become a family.
“She draws people in. She just has that charisma about her,” Quesenberry said.
Dunbar said she had noticed that family connection had even changed the way the players were interacting with Anna Hodges during the school day.
“At first a few of them were unsure, but now in the hallways, they’ll always stop and talk to her,” she said.
Anna Hodges admitted that at first she wasn’t sure this level of acceptance would happen.
“I was afraid nobody would want me on the team,” she typed out on her Ipad.
“But everyone is nice…I have friends, nobody makes fun of me…my coach treats me like the rest [of the players,]” she added.
It is that feeling of acceptance, along with the addition of a social outlet, which Sonia Hodges said has completely changed her daughter’s middle school experience.
“She is very aware of her differences, so the fact that they treat her like the rest of the team is a really big deal,” Sonia Hodges said.
“This has totally been the highlight of her whole middle school career.”
Sonia Hodges added she is also thrilled about how the experience has affected the other girls on the team, pointing out this was the first time many of them had any exposure to the facilitated communication — typing on an Ipad — Anna Hodges uses to communicate.
Sonia Hodges said that because communication is her daughter’s biggest barrier, simply allowing the other players to see how it can be overcome has helped them understand how much they really have in common with Anna Hodges.
One thing Anna Hodges has clearly communicated is that she does not want her time as the team’s manager to come to an end.
While there is little anyone can do to stop her time on the middle school team from being up, it seems her managerial career may be far from over.
When asked if he would consider adding Anna Hodges to the staff next season, Christiansburg High School head softball coach Dave Cooper was quick to respond.
“Absolutely,” Cooper said.
It appears Anna Hodges will likely get to spend next season again being “just one of the girls.”
The Roanoke Times | 381-1643