Last week before a team meeting, John Pohlman looked at our In/Out calendar and noticed I am going to be out of the office from January 17th to the 28th. JP proceeded to ask me the next logical question, “Where are you going?” He was assuming any number of common warm weather destinations – Florida, California, Arizona – but when I replied with, “Nicaragua,” he acknowledged the curve-ball.
I’ve been working with Helping Kids Round First (more on that later), and this is the group’s annual trip to bring baseball equipment, clothes, and other necessities to rural Nicaraguan villages. While I leave for Nicaragua in a couple days, the trip has been a few years in the making.
I played baseball during my four years at Augustana College, and one summer I was lucky enough to travel to Costa Rica through Beyond Study Abroad. Beyond is a study-abroad program designed specifically for athletes who can’t afford to take the time off from their athletic commitments to participate in most international study programs. To that end, sports are the center of the Beyond experience. I spent two months in Costa Rica, and made week-long excursions to play baseball games in both Nicaragua and Panamá. While Costa Rica is a third-world country and poor by United States’ standards, it is in a much better economic situation relative to many other Central American nations.
During my one week in Nicaragua, I played a couple of games against former Major League Baseball pitcher, and native Nicaraguan, Dennis Martinez’ Nicaraguan Baseball Academy. In a country where one-third of the children never reach sixth grade, these academies feed, house, and educate promising young athletes with the hopes of signing them to major league contracts. These contracts represent life-changing money for their families, often before these kids even turn 18. During those few days my Beyond teammates and I were on vacation while on vacation, but the kids in the other dugout were playing for a better life. (I later found out Kevin Gadea signed a $42,000 contract with the Seattle Mariners hours after he pitched against us). That week I truly realized the power of a game.
I returned home that summer having learned a lot – about Costa Rica, Nicaragua, the Spanish language and culture, and how good we all have it – but without specific plans to return to Central America.
The following spring, I was approached by Craig Severtson after one of our games. Craig is the father of Bret Severtson, a former teammate of mine, so I had met numerous times in over the course of previous seasons. During the winter he had read an article about my trip the prior summer. He explained he had been bringing donated baseball equipment to rural villages in Nicaragua for a few years, and asked if I had any interest in helping. I told him I’d love to contribute in any way I could. This project combines two passions – baseball and Spanish – and uses them to create positive change.
That was the spring of 2013. Now nearly two years later, Craig’s project is no longer just a project. As a fully incorporated 501(c)(3) non-profit, Helping Kids Round First is now officially dedicated to giving underprivileged youth opportunities through baseball.
While the Nicaraguan Baseball Academy and other similar academies are a great opportunity for the athletes chosen, only a select few are lucky enough to get that chance. There remains tremendous opportunity to improve the lives of many more Nicaraguan youth. The cleats we bring down are often the only shoes these children have. Pastors tell us church attendance rises for weeks following our visits. The trust developed with community members in Nicaragua has turned a “mission trip” into much more.
Baseball is the tool we can use to create long-term, sustainable improvements in a country desperate for tangible economic progress.
Soon I’ll be on a flight south. Not to Arizona or Florida, but to Managua, Nicaragua. For 11 days, we’ll be giving equipment to rural communities and leading baseball clinics for the youth. While it may be just a game to many, for much of the world it can lead to a whole lot more.
For more information visit www.helpingkidsroundfirst.org or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.