Julia Kadel, Co-Founder & Executive Director, Miracle League of Palm Beach County | Florida
Julia Kadel in conversation with Monika & Natasha Samtani in Miami, FL | March 2018
We're so excited and inspired about you and your story. Tell us about the journey of your life path and what led you to found a sports league that has changed the lives of special needs kids.
First of all, thank you for having me. When I found out what The Fem Word is, I jumped on board to come and tell my story.
I think, a series of events over my lifetime, and it did take some time to really kind of think back about how I was treated in middle school, how I was treated in high school, and then when I had children and saw how they were treated. When I had children of my own, I wanted to be able to do something as a family to give back to our community. We want to be positive role models for our three boys. We did things like the soup kitchen and Habitat for Humanity, but there wasn't that one thing that we could all jump on board.
One day we saw a Miracle League. It was a special needs sports league for children with special needs in Georgia. And my husband and I saw this video on HBO and we looked at each other with tears in our eyes and said, "that's what we're going to do with our family." Two weeks later we went to the city and we told them our plan, and they gave us $10,000 seed money and we went, "Oh shit! We actually have to get moving with it." Sure enough, when we told our story to our community, we had people jump on board with volunteer hours, community involvement. Everybody was just so excited about it. And really we got the league [started] in less than two years.
What's interesting is you mentioned you have three boys. They're healthy kids, you have a good life. Why was it so important to you to get into the Miracle League with kids who do have special needs?
It's completely different than your own life.
It is. I have to say that my husband and I feel truly blessed. My husband and I always said how we started Miracle League was really God-led and it has been. Looking back on my life, through my middle school, my high school years, I've had some challenges myself and raising three children and seeing what they go through in school. It's really difficult for the children, especially with Autism and Asperger's. I've seen quite a bit of bullying, not even just within children in middle school and high school, but with special needs. When we saw one day on the video about the Miracle League in Georgia, we knew, as both coaches, my husband coaches all the sports for my children and I'm a health coach and a cheerleading coach - what best way to use our talents to give back and be positive role models for our children? So that's when we started the Miracle League.
What is the Miracle League?
Boy, I could sit here for hours and tell you about all of our different children that we have that come and I wouldn't even say children. We started with children from five to 19 and we took kids with all abilities. Whether it was high-functioning autism to severely handicap. And the growth and development that we've seen over the years from one parent telling us, "you have no idea. My son can't move his arms. And after six weeks of playing ball with him, my husband taught him how to throw a ball and his father cried to us and said that he never thought he'd be able to play catch with his son." That was amazing. We've also had our volunteers, every child is paired up with an able bodied buddy. And I've had one volunteer, she's been with me for about two years, she is a healthy young lady. She's a senior this year. And her mother came to me and said, "you have no idea. You see people with autism, you see people with down syndrome that come and they play. But you have no idea about the children that come and volunteer who are socially handicap and what Miracle League has done for them has just expanded and had them grow."
What has this meant to your kids?
My kids are pretty funny. Here's a great example of what it's done for my children. So every child is paired up with an able body buddy. And when we started this, we thought it would be perfect. My husband and I would both coach. I have quite a large presence, I wear the microphone, I announce everybody's names, and we thought our kids could be the buddies for all the kids. And our very first day we went and we had our very first game, not knowing what we were going to do. And we cried the whole entire time. We had sunglasses on and we couldn't believe we had pulled it off. And we had a family dinner that night and we talked about it with our three kids about what they thought. And my one son looked at me, he goes, "mom, it's just what we do." I went, "okay, you're right. That's just what we do." And now 10 years later, the three of them fight over who's going to run the Miracle League when mom's not going to run it anymore! So of course that brings tears to my eyes and makes my heart 10 times bigger than it ever will be.
This started as a grassroots effort, and now it's become something bigger than, I think from reading about you, than you ever expected. How has the Miracle League changed your life?
I wouldn't say Miracle League has changed my life. I would say Miracle League is my life. If you asked me in my twenties, would I be running a baseball league for children with special needs? I probably would have laughed at you. I cannot believe where my life is in running this organization. It's been a leap of faith. I've had great parents, I've had great positive role models. I've had parents pushing me to be their advocate. They call me their fearless leader and I could not be more proud. And if I could share that with anybody, is to follow your passion on what you are passionate about in life. That you can do this. It's not your job. Miracle League is not my job, although I run it full time. It's not my job. It's who I am. It's a part of my blood. It's my DNA. And I love every single second of it. And I wish I can keep doing it until my dying breath. So if I can tell any young person or young woman to follow their heart, not to follow the crowd, but follow what you like to do and what your passion is, I promise you, you will be rewarded 10 times over in your life. I could not be happier with my life and where it has come.
But it didn't start that way, right? You said that you'd had struggles when you were young, when you were in high school?
I did. I was not comfortable in my own skin in elementary school. Middle school was very tough for me. I wouldn't use the word bullied, but I would certainly use the word very uncomfortable with who I was. High School, I was the same way. I was always just trying to fit in. I drank, I did drugs, I tried everything imaginable just to find my social spot in this world. And it wasn't until I found my best friend, - and that's even funny because I always tried to find a best friend. And when I met my husband, even then I was trying to find my best friend and not realizing he was my best friend. And it wasn't until he really just loved me for the person that I was, he never tried to push me to be anything different. And anytime I wanted to try something different and go out of my box, my comfort zone, he gave me the pedestal to do so. And I owe everything to him and allowing me just to be myself. That in itself is a gift.
What a testament to what's happening right now, where there's this whole movement around women being strong. And it sounds like you're not strong because of him; you're strong along with him.
Absolutely. [I'm] a health coach, a certified health coach, and I work with the special needs community as well. And when I tell somebody that I'm coaching them, I don't coach in front of them and pull them along. I don't coach behind them and push them. I stand along beside them. And I think for young women especially, that are going through what's going on in this world, is trying to find your own journey, find your passion, make yourself different and unique. And that's where I was. I found myself in my uniqueness and at this point in my life, I honestly don't care what anybody else thinks about me. I don't care about my aging wrinkles. I don't care about my age. I wake up as happy as a clam and I try and share my smile every single day. That's my objective every day. And it makes me a happier person.
And so you've now created a community of happy people, not only the special needs kids, but now the community that's coming along with you to be their buddies, to be the able bodied people, whatever way they can volunteer.
I hope that I can share that philosophy with everybody. I read somewhere that my life is not about me and I try to live my day, everyday, like that. My life is not about me. And when I have volunteers that come, I'm trying to teach them this life is not about yours. It's about giving back to the next person. And if we can continue to do that, what a ripple effect that that would be! And it's not just about ourselves. It's not about us. It's about other people. And you will find yourself a happier human being for that.
"Miracle League is not my job, although I run it full time. It's not my job. It's who I am. It's a part of my blood. It's my DNA. And I love every single second of it. And I wish I can keep doing it until my dying breath"
Why is it more important now than ever for organizations like yours to exist?
Well, I think unfortunately with the increasing numbers of children with special needs, especially autism being on the rise, I think the statistics are crazy and an all time high. And I think it's supposed to double in the next 10 years. I can speculate why, but I just think that more organizations like the Miracle League that help not only the special needs community, not only help the families of children with special needs, but also create an inclusion for everybody, to have the healthy peers, the healthy children realize that we're all just people. We all have our own disability in some sort of way. Some may be a little bit more visible than others, but as time goes on, they're going to see more and more. People are very different and I think inclusion, I think more organizations about inclusions are the most important at this point.
What does being powerful mean to Julia?
That's a great question and like I said before, for me, for many years in my life, I was always trying to find who I was, who Julia was, and where I can make a difference, and what I can do, and I don't really feel [the need] to be powerful anymore. I just feel calm and kind, and I just want to be able to be that for every person that I run into, whether it's at the grocery store or Target. I just try and share my smile. I don't need to be powerful anymore. I know that I'm really comfortable with who I am and I think that's where my power kind of lies is just well within my soul.
Tell me a moment when you did feel powerful. Is it that moment when you realized who you are? Is that your a-ha moment?
One of my a-ha moments was when we first had our very first game, and we had a boy in a wheelchair who had never played a sport before in his life and his parents were actually quite unsure of him playing baseball. And we told him that that was okay and we would take good care of him. And he came across home plate with the biggest smile on his face. And my husband and I, we cried hysterically tears of joy, how happy he was. And it wasn't until a few years later that this young boy passed away and his buddy, his volunteer who was in high school, came and spoke at his funeral and when he mentioned how the Miracle League had impacted him, and how he would take that experience with him for the rest of his life, and how Jeff and Julia Kadel made this huge impact in his life just because of the Miracle League. I couldn't understand, I couldn't process what that was. It was a huge a-ha but it was also hard to process about the ripple effect that we had created. And I think another important thing to tell you is that Jeff and I actually started the Miracle League right on a couch like this. We sat and we watched TV one day, and I always say it's a miracle because I never let him have the remote control. And I let them have the remote, and we were on the couch and we were watching Miracle League. And it was an a-ha moment for us that that was something we wanted to do. And here we are 12 years later with 125 participants and hundreds of volunteers, and all looking to our family to continue the ripple, continue the seasons and keep it going.
What's next for you?
What is next? I don't know. I don't say no to anything. Whatever comes my way, whatever door opens, I'm always trying to be a little bit out of my comfort zone every day, trying to take new risks. I don't know. I don't know. We are expanding to North County of Palm Beach County. We've expanded into cheerleading. We'll probably expand into a couple of other sports and, I don't know. I hope we just keep growing leaps and bounds, more smiles every day. It's all I care about. And one for me.
What would you say to someone who is looking at your story and feels like they need help, or they're special needs, or the parents has a child with special needs?
First thing I would say is if you are someone in need or you're a parent of a special needs child or know of a family with a special needs child - number one, call me! Two, reach out. There are so many organizations, there are such great, great support groups that are willing to help. I know in our area there's organizations that are growing leaps and bounds. We're all kind of connecting with each other. I'm actually starting a new organization called Palm Beach Buddies, which gives an outlet for all middle school, high school, college students or anybody that wants to volunteer to help, not with just our organization but with any organization that works with children of special needs or adult with special needs. But reach out, Google is your best friend. Alexa, now I hear, is your new best friend. But ask, there's so many support groups and if you can't find anybody, find me. I'm on social media, I'd be happy to help you.
Talk to me a little bit about the joy that special needs people feel coming together as a team, and as friends, and as a community.
The joy is indescribable. To watch some of our players see some of their friends from school, see each other at baseball. They're so excited - this special needs population - I love them so much because they really are just so innocent. They don't take a lot of what everyday people hold on to. They're just pure joy. They're all smiles and they love it and they've created such great friendships with our volunteers. They're happy to be there, whether it's playing baseball, whether they're running around all of our bases. It's a friendship. It's a soul-satisfying Saturday for everybody, not just for me, but for every volunteer and player there.
In a couple sentences, what do you feel your life's mission is?
My life mission is just continuing to be happy. I want to empower any one of my students, any one of my volunteers, my children, just to realize that there's no such word as can't. If I can create this off of my couch 12 years ago, you can make change. Simple as that.