Sliding Safely into Home

There’s a book that’s bound to be written about a place called Althor Park. At first glance, it will be a book about best friends building a ballpark in Adem Althor’s back yard. It will tell the story of four Oyster Rock High School freshmen from Lee, N.H., who shoveled snow, washed cars and sold T-shirts so they could buy plywood and green paint for an 8-foot outfield wall.
There will be a dark chapter early on about the adults who discouraged them: “It will be too expensive. It will be too hard.” But the next chapter will open with a full-color photo of the more than 300 kids who’ve played at the park so far, standing between the 35-foot yellow foul poles, right in front of the Green Monster, the towering 20-foot tribute to Fenway Park.

Of course, this story has holes in it, or at least the balls do. This will be a book about wiffleball, not baseball, and if you peel back the pages and read between the lines, you’ll discover that it’s not a book about building ballparks in back yards at all. It’s about building the kingdom of God.

“Althor Park is the most impressive endeavor that I have seen high school kids undertake,” said Eric Sessler, who is on staff with Young Life in Lee. “They have done more than simply build an incredible wiffleball park. These guys have created a culture in the high school that is inclusive and fun. There is no doubt that God has used many of these kids and the game of wiffleball to proclaim His love to others.”

Chapter One: Field of Dreams Meets The Wonder Years
Four years ago, Adem and his three friends — Rich Schanda, Jarret Bencks and Rafi Low-weiner — were lounging in Adem’s back yard, dreaming of a better day. A day when serious wiffleball players no longer had to use ping-pong paddles for bases or run around poison ivy-shrouded shrubs on the way from first to third.

That’s when they heard the voice: “If you build it, they will come.” Only this voice said something more like, “If you come up with a compelling reason to build a wiffleball stadium in your back yard — like raising money for charities through organized tournaments with fees — then people will want to support your fundraisers on the front end, and you’ll be able to build the park.”

It’s not clear exactly whose voice spoke Althor Park into existence, but it is clear that it wasn’t a mysterious, adult voice from a Kevin Costner movie. It was more like a chorus of awkward kid voices from the cast of The Wonder Years, slipping from adolescence into adulthood and back again as the boys built a ballpark and prepared for the next spring.
“It is so unbelievable that we didn’t have any help from adults,” Adem said. “This was complicated stuff for sophomores to do.”

Besides fundraising, advertising, marketing, purchasing, tree and shrub removal, and construction, the “complicated stuff” included building an Althor Park Web site that, to date, has received more than 100,000 hits.

“One day we were in the library at school,” Rich said, “and we noticed that half of the computers had backgrounds of Althor Park.” Rich created and maintains the popular Web site, but to him, the most satisfying part of the past four years has been the human internet created among kids.

“I always watched The Wonder Years growing up and wished I could live in a community like that,” Rich said. “And now that’s what has happened through this park.”

Chapter Two: Finding Common Ground
Recently in the national news there have been tragic stories of high school seniors hazing freshmen and causing bodily harm. Creating a Wonder Years-type community among opposing high school classes is not an ordinary experience among kids. But there’s nothing ordinary about Althor Park. More than 300 kids from Oyster River High School have played in one of the three annual tournaments for the past two years, raising hundreds of dollars for the Make-A-Wish Foundation and The Salvation Army and dramatically changing the culture of the school.

“It’s not about who you are,” Adem said. “I’ve seen teams of senior guys play with a team of freshmen that they don’t even know. They would never talk to each other at school. Then they walk out of the game shaking hands and making friends.”

“When I was a freshman, you didn’t want to sit at a senior table at lunch,” Rich said. “You’d just get beat up. That doesn’t exist any more. It’s amazing to see sophomores hanging out with seniors. Everyone has something in common.” Wiffleball has leveled the playing field at Oyster River High.

Chapter Three: Yogi Berra and the Boys
The baseball legend and prolific master of mismatched words once said, “I would have never seen it if I hadn’t believed it for myself.” So it could be said of Adem and Rich. Faith has been the substance of things hoped for at Althor Park.

The summer following his freshman year — the same summer the prophetic voice said “build a ballpark” — Adem went to Young Life camp and found faith in Jesus Christ. Rich followed suit that fall at a weekend camp. Young Life was just getting off the ground in the area at the same time Althor Park was taking shape, and the two became closely connected.

“We had Young Life at my house the month right after we built the park,” Adem said. “Once we built the park, we started doing Young Life differently because everybody wanted to play wiffleball. So people would get to my house around 6, Young Life would start at 7:30, then people would be at my house until about 9:30. It was a three-hour affair— wiffleball and Young Life.

“You get some kids who just come to play wiffleball, then leave when Young Life starts,” Adem said. “But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. They get a chance to play and have fun with a bunch of kids who are in Young Life. There are four clubs at my house each September. Maybe by the last one, they’ll stay for Young Life.”

Pat Jackson was one kid who came for wiffleball and stayed for club.

“We all invited Pat to come play,” said Adem. “He had a team in our Fall Classic this October. That’s a good tournament.

“Pat was sort of shy at first. His team got crushed. That’s just the way things start. The next couple of weeks, he was at Young Life. The next thing you know, he went to the fall weekend camp. Now he’s digging deeper and at a great place in his life. He got an early start, his freshman year.”

And that’s the payoff for Rich and Adem.

“There are so many intangibles in keeping the park afloat,” said Adem. “It’s hard to get yourself to work for it, unless you’re in it for a bigger reason. A reason like maybe someday you’re going to get a bunch of underclassmen here to play wiffleball and maybe start a friendship. That’s the only thing that could possibly keep you in the game.”

Chapter Four: Everything I Needed to Know for College Admission, I Learned at
Althor Park

These days Rich and Adem are capturing on paper the academic value of building a ballpark in the back yard as they write college application essays. Here are a few of the lessons they’ve learned from Althor Park:

Don’t preprint tournament dates on T-shirts; it might rain. Wear thick gloves and long sleeves when digging up shrubs with poison ivy; you might be allergic. You can create community with competition if the playing field is level and your point is to just have fun.

And then an undercover lesson for anyone reading between the lines: There’s nothing better in the whole wide world of sports than watching a friend slide safely into home.