Few people can say they have shared a stage with a U.S. president.
Last November, Lauren Gunder did just that, moderating a one-hour conversation with George W. Bush at a fundraising event for The Miracle League, an Atlanta-based, charitable organization that enables children with physical and/or mental challenges to play baseball.
As an official spokesperson for The Miracle League, Gunder appears at meetings, field openings and other events across the nation. Her testimony is credited with inspiring hundreds of communities to form their own leagues, now totaling 16 in Georgia and about 270 across the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Australia.
Gunder has appeared in national television and print media many times. A national TV crew even covered Georgia Gwinnett College’s 2013 spring commencement ceremony, during which she received a bachelor’s degree in history with teaching certification.
Why did all this happen?
“I was the only eight-year old who would talk to reporters,” she said.
A baseball fan from a very young age, Gunder was one of the first children to play with The Miracle League.
“It started when the Rockdale Youth Baseball Association let one kid play,” she said. “The next year, 35 wanted to play. One day, Dean Alford came over from another game where his son was playing, saw what was happening and was hooked.”
Alford, president and CEO of Allied Energy Services and a member of the University System of Georgia Board of Regents, led an effort with the Rockdale and Conyers Rotary clubs to organize The Miracle League as a 501(c)3 charitable organization. In 1999, 11 TV news and sports media crews covered one of its first official games. The reporters became enamored with a well-spoken, little tyke who was excited about playing her favorite game.
Instantly, Gunder became The Miracle League’s “poster child,” and played throughout her K-12 years.
Gunder has malignant infantile osteopetrosis (MIO), a rare, congenital disorder that causes bones to be abnormally dense and brittle. It causes fractures, anemia, frequent infections, blindness, deafness and other complications. She was given a zero chance of living beyond age two.
Now 24, Gunder defied the odds and is the oldest known person living with MIO. She uses a wheelchair to minimize risk of fractures and is legally blind. She also wears hearing aids in both ears.
Gunder said she appreciates opportunities to discuss how the program works and its positive influence on participants.
“The fields are flat and fully accessible. The bases are inlaid on a rubber surface,” she said. “Each field is different, with communities putting their own stamps on them, like including accessible playgrounds. Kids who cannot run or who need assistance have buddies who help them or run the bases for them.”
In addition to helping players have fun and build confidence while providing a positive family experience, the program helps buddies develop understanding for those facing challenges, she said.
“I enjoy it, but I don’t do it for me,” Gunder said of her travels and media appearances. “There have been cool perks, and it’s helped me build confidence and develop relationships, but I do it for the other kids.”
Those perks include meeting professional baseball and media figures, including Nolan Ryan, Jim Abbott, Bryant Gumbel, Katie Couric and Jane Pauley, as well as players with the Atlanta Braves. As a college graduation gift, Gumbel surprised Gunder on the “Katie Couric Show” with a trip to Fenway Park to see the Boston Red Sox play.
Gunder and her family met President Bush during an impromptu, private conversation before The Miracle League’s Nov. 11, 2014, fundraising dinner, attended by about 350 dinner guests, including Gov. Nathan Deal and many other prominent leaders and community members. Bush requested private time to ensure Gunder would feel comfortable talking with him on stage.
“He said it was the first time he’d ever been interviewed in braille,” Gunder said. “We talked about college and family. Meeting Bush was on my mom’s bucket list, and going to Fenway was on mine.”
Gunder works as a paraprofessional at Gwinnett County’s Parkview High School, where she helps students in the Vision Impaired Resources program. She was in the same program when she attended Parkview.
“I enjoy giving back,” she said. “I’ve thanked my former instructors because I know how hard it is now. They were like second mothers to me. They made sure I was taken care of. They helped me learn how to be prepared and organized.”
Gunder works with students needing a range of services, from learning braille to help with technology or life skills. Some students have congenital conditions, while others deal with the effects of brain tumors or accidents. She also provides in-classroom assistance for visually impaired students taking chemistry and geometry.
“There are so many wonderful ways to describe Lauren. She’s bright, courageous and witty. But most of all, she brings joy to everyone she meets.” – Dean Alford, Chairman, The Miracle League Board of Directors
Her own experiences in Parkview’s program not only enable her to relate to her students, but anticipate their needs, as well as how they may try to trick her or avoid assignments.
“They can’t pull the wool over my eyes,” she said, wryly. “I’ve been where they are. I tell them that anything they try, I’ve done it … twice.”
In addition to continuing to inspire The Miracle League’s players and supporters while helping visually impaired students, Gunder hopes to teach history.