Veterans softball team inspires youngsters


Special to the Miami Herald

If you ask Brayan Solano, 11, who his favorite basketball player is, he doesn’t hesitate to tell you it’s Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat.

For baseball, he has to think a little, searching the ceiling before giving a diplomatic response: He doesn’t know who his favorite player is, but he likes the Boston Red Sox, and, of course, the Miami Marlins.

For softball, the answer is easy again.

It’s Greg Reynolds of the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team, or WWAST, which comprises military veterans and active-duty soldiers who have amputations. The team travels the country playing celebrity and exhibition softball games.

“He just holds the bat with one arm, brings it up to the other side, and swings,” Brayan demonstrated, raising an invisible bat to show how Reynolds hits the ball with one arm and shoulder. “I was like, ‘wow.’ 

Like most of the players on the WWAST, Brayan has a prosthetic limb — his leg was amputated below the knee at age 6 due to a congenital disability. And like all of the players on the team, Brayan is an athlete who is passionate about sports.

On Jan. 18, Brayan, who lives in Miami’s Silver Bluff neighborhood, got to see the WWAST in action at a doubleheader in Jupiter, after several people concocted a plan to honor Brayan as an inspiration and to show him firsthand that missing limbs or not, he can do anything he sets his mind to.

“He was astonished,” said his mother Katerine Garcia, speaking in Spanish. “He was saying ‘mom, did you see that? Can I do that?’ I told him, ‘yes, of course you can.’ 

Those who know Brayan describe him as a happy kid with a big heart and true character; someone who never makes excuses and never says no.

But Brayan’s teacher, at Kensington Park Elementary School in Miami, saw that he was having some bad days, especially after he found out about an upcoming leg surgery that will mean no standing for six weeks — hard news for anyone who loves playing basketball with friends after school.

“I noticed that there were days where he was a little sad or a little down,” said Denise Estevez, who teaches science, Brayan’s favorite subject, and math. “He goes out there and he runs a mile just like the other kids. He likes to be up and around. He doesn’t want anything to stop him.”

So Estevez reached out to the Miami-Dade Police Department, which has had a close relationship with the WWAST since hosting a game and fundraiser in 2012.

Thanks to some behind-the-scenes planning on the part of Detective Alvaro Zabaleta and Public Information Officer Lisa Macias, Brayan was in for a surprise.

One day in Estevez’s class, Zabaleta and Macias presented Brayan with a signed WWAST softball, T-shirt, baseball cap and video from the team inviting him to be their special guest and bat boy at the Jan. 18 game against the Florida Legends senior softball team.

“My mouth was just open the whole time,” Brayan said. “I was really excited.”

For those who planned the surprise, it was as much about inspiring all the students in class as lifting Brayan’s spirits.

“We all encounter obstacles, and it’s important that we are able to get over those obstacles and apply them in a positive way,” Zabaleta said. “When someone like Brayan is able to continue to be an athlete and keep his mind focused and stay positive in school, that is for us to learn from him. We were talking to Brayan not out of pity, but as one of our heroes and mentors.”

That day, in his new T-shirt and baseball cap, Brayan was all smiles and his mother was all tears as his peers cheered and clapped for him.

WWAST founder David Van Sleet, who worked in prosthetics with the Department of Veterans Affairs for many years, has tried to involve kids in the team from the get-go. He invites local kids with amputations to be bat boys and girls, so they can experience the team’s motto —‘life without a limb is limitless’ — up-close.

The team also held its first summer camp for kids with amputations or missing limbs last year at Walt Disney World, where 20 kids spent five days learning how to play softball, all expenses paid.

Seeing other people with amputations play a high-skilled sport can be life-altering for kids — Van Sleet remembered a boy from last year’s camp who refused to wear shorts until he saw all the short-clad players who also had prostheses. But it goes both ways.

“What I see is inspiration from both sides,” Van Sleet said. “Children inspire us just as much as we inspire them. Some of those kids have been amputees longer than our guys.”

For January’s game, the Marlins Foundation provided funds for a hotel for Brayan and his mother to stay in Jupiter. At Roger Dean Stadium, Brayan got to meet the players as well as a fellow guest bat boy, a 13-year-old who also had a prosthesis.

Brayan had simple words to describe the athletes as they played.

“Incredible,” he said. “That takes skills.”

Both Estevez and Garcia said that Brayan has had a renewed sense of confidence and excitement since the game.

“I haven’t seen him have those sad days,” Estevez said. “He has just been very happy since the whole thing.”

Garcia said that Brayan will likely have his surgery in March, a necessary step to prevent knee problems as his bones continue to grow. Like most medical procedures, it’s not cheap, and Estevez and Zabaleto said they will be brainstorming ways to raise funds.

But Brayan is looking past that, to when he will apply for the summer WWAST softball camp. In the meantime, he continues to inspire those around him, kids and adults alike.

“A kid once told Brayan he had a wooden leg,” Garcia said. “He replied, ‘I might have a wooden leg, but I have a bigger heart than you, and I was born like that.’ 

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