TEMPLE TERRACE – Filled with enthusiasm and a goal of ultimately earning the Girl Scout Gold Award, the equivalency of the Boy Scout Eagle badge, 7-year-old Michelle Skelton piled in the car with her entire family and headed off to Girl Scout camp for her first week away from home.
As they all waited in line for Michelle to check in, she happened to spot a girl she called Amy staring at and mocking the look and actions of James, one of her cherished brothers who was born with cerebral palsy.
Ironically, Michelle and Amy were assigned to the same cabin where the girl recruited other campers to join her in relentlessly ridiculing and imitating James’ unique posturing and loud noises, common among many special needs people.
While their unkind behavior continued over the week, Michelle made up her mind not to get mad or internalize the hurt she felt.
Instead, she vowed to make it a priority to bring happiness to people like James and to help others understand and value their worth.
From Buddy Baseball’s inception in October 2009, Michelle has been deeply involved in the program, a noncompetitive recreational league open to boys and girls with special needs throughout Hillsborough County and beyond.
In a league that just completed its 10th season with 170 participants, Michelle has served as an ongoing buddy to a boy with Down syndrome who is now 18, the same age as her.
She’s also played a role in looking after James, who’s also been in the program from the start, and she’s assisted Buddy Baseball Commissioner and Founder Russ Oberbroeckling in whatever ways she’s been able. For that effort, she received the Buddy Baseball Volunteer Award five consecutive years.
In addition, Michelle achieved her goal of earning the Gold Award, the highest honor bestowed by Girl Scouts U.S.A. in 2012, partly as a result of her Buddy Baseball project that involved photographing each special-needs player with his or her buddy along with a team photo, each of which she framed and presented to every participant. She’s done the same with the new kids who’ve come on board during the four seasons.
Mind you, Michelle is a King High School senior in the International Baccalaureate program who has never earned less than an “A” grade from first through 12th grade.
She has received a long list of national, state and county academic honors along with community service and athletic accolades, including recently being named Hillsborough County Schools’ most outstanding cheerleader.
Sadly for Michelle, her longtime stint with Buddy Baseball recently came to an end because when the fall season starts she will be a freshman at Emory University in Atlanta where she plans to major in biochemistry.
“I’m going to miss Buddy Baseball so much,” she said. “It’s made such a difference in people’s lives and I’ve learned so much from Russ Oberbroeckling, who through his kind and philanthropic nature, has taught me how to get things done efficiently.”
But Michelle’s departure from the league did not go unnoticed.
Oberbroeckling, on behalf of Buddy Baseball’s board of directors, presented Michelle with the organization’s second annual $500 scholarship in appreciation of her hard work and dedication.
“She is just fantastic,” he said. “All that she has done for us and yet maintain such high marks (in school) is incredible.”
Michelle’s mother, Dr. Nadine Skelton, said it amazes her how much her only daughter takes on and how well she handles everything she does.
“Michelle has always been self-motivated and she makes it all look so easy,” she said.
Her father, Dr. William Skelton, concurred.
“We are very proud of her. She has always exceeded our expectations,” he said.
Joyce McKenzie can be reached at [email protected]