How an Iowa man started a baseball camp for those with hearing loss

Photo: Dylan Heuer/Special to the Register
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Sembetu Dalay is completely deaf. The 14-year-old from Des Moines can’t hear her friends, teammates or instructors at the Iowa Baseball Camp for the Deaf cheering her on whenever she makes a play.

But she knows they are.

She knows it because whenever Dalay or one of the other 31 campers who are deaf or have partial hearing loss smacks a baseball, makes a play in the field or runs around the bases, everyone raises their hands in the air in shakes them. The gesture is applause in sign language.

“I’m usually a little bit shy or embarrassed, but it makes me really happy,” Dalay said, signing through an interpreter. “It makes me happy to see everybody get behind me.”

That’s the purpose of the fifth-year camp, which has been teaching baseball to children who are deaf or who have partial hearing loss. And everyone — from the instructors, to the players, to some professional members of the Triple-A Iowa Cubs — is getting something out of it.

“It doesn’t matter if you speak sign language or not,” said volunteer Ryan Fitzgerald. “Everybody can see what a great feeling it is, what a great job they’re doing. It’s contagious. That’s really the reward you see with working with some of these kids.”

‘I love baseball’

Des Moines native Dylan Heuer has been involved with this venture for years. A 30-year-old freelance photographer, Heuer lost his hearing when he was 1 or 2 after suffering from spinal meningitis. An avid baseball fan, Heuer used to attend the Sertoma Fantasy Baseball Camp, also designed to help those with hearing loss learn the game. Heuer loved the camp so much that when he aged out of it, he started volunteering.

But when he went away for college, the camp eventually closed because of declining numbers. When Heuer, a graduate of the Rochester (N.Y.) Institute of Technology, returned to Des Moines after school, he wanted deaf children to have the same opportunity.

“I love baseball,” Heuer said. “That is one of my main passions of my life. So, I want to be Iowa Baseball Camp for the Deafable to share that with the children that I had a great experience growing up with that camp.”

Heuer formed the Iowa Baseball Camp for the Deaf, coming up with the name and his own logo. But he needed some help.

Iowa Cubs outfielder Jacob Hannemann helps children who are deaf or have partial hearing loss participate in the fifth edition of the Iowa Baseball Camp for the Deaf. (Photo: Dylan Heuer/Special to the Register)

He reached out to his old contacts at Sertoma about how to start a camp. He reached out to sponsors and donors to help pay for snacks, meals and hats, jerseys, pants and socks. Heuer also used his contacts from his days as an Iowa Cubs batboy to line up players to sign autographs, answer questions and help during the camp.

He even got friends to volunteer and work as interpreters, and old coaches to work as instructors. The city of Johnston allows Heuer to use two of its Little League fields for free.

“This camp is like my baby,” Heuer said.

And it’s growing like a living thing. The first camp included 20 campers. In Year 5, there are 32 participants and about 30 volunteers working at two different diamonds.

Dalay has been all five years.

“I just love coming back,” she said. “I get to meet new deaf and hearing kids. I like getting to meet all of them. And it’s fun. We can joke around. I like learning about baseball.”

‘There’s nothing else that compares to it.’

Melissa McCullough and her family moved from Illinois to Iowa about four years ago. McCullough has two kids, Aden (12) and Ainsley (8), who have hearing loss. She says there is nothing like the camp Heuer runs back home. In fact, it’s so special that they’ve made the three-hour trip from the Quad Cities for the past four years to attend.

“In general, in the community, there’s not a lot of things that are specifically hearing impairment (centered) and sports,” McCullough said. “You can go to summer camp, the school for the deaf or whatever. You can do those things. But hearing and baseball? There’s nothing else that compares.”

That’s what Heuer prides himself on: a unique experience centered on baseball. The free one-week camp includes instruction and games. Children aged 7-14 learn how to bat, field balls and throw. For the more experienced players, campers can even learn specific game strategies and how to get signs from the dugout.

Throughout the week, Heuer enlists the help of some Iowa Cubs players. Heuer has interpreters constantly around. The week also includes a tour of Principal Park and a pick-up game on the field. Campers also sign “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Take Me Out To the Ball Game” during a game. The focus though, is having fun. And that level of success is a true hit.

“This event has been really cool,” said Iowa Cubs pitcher Duane Underwood Jr.

Even though Heuer is celebrating five years, he hopes the camp’s momentum is just beginning. He wants more: more years, more participants, more fields. No matter what, he’s already exceeded his expectations of providing the experience he remembers growing up.

“It’s really the best experience of my life,” Heuer said.

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