Together in the Dominican Republic

In February my life was changed forever.

Food for the Hungry presents Striking Out Poverty from FH Artists on Vimeo.

INTRO


I’ve ran a company that has become known for our charity work now for over a year. I’ve donated tens of thousands of dollars to different causes chosen by athletes, and put dozens of causes in front of tens of millions of people in the past year. However, I never realized I was missing something until this past week. I was missing my own cause. My own passion. My own purpose to make the world a better place. I once thought that my purpose was connecting athletes with causes that they were passionate about and giving them a platform to impact those causes. Yes, I am impacting the world in that way… but until now, I never realized that I never truly had my own connection and my own cause. My own calling and issue to tackle.

In December of 2015 I got introduced to one of the coolest people I know at the MLB Winter Meetings in Nashville, TN. Matt Price beamed passion for helping people in poverty in Latin America. There was just something different about this meeting. The timing of it seemed odd, his passion was contagious, and for some reason we just connected. He then introduced me to a guy named Carlos who he said actually went through the charities “sponsor a child” program when he was younger. Carlos now runs a division of the charity in the Dominican Republic. The next night I met Milam Byers. A former guitarist, who now heads a division of this charity now as well. Every person with this cause just seemed genuine. They seemed real. And aside from Carlos, they had no tie to the country or the people that they were so passionate about helping. We met in person a couple more times before I left to head back home to Arizona, and each time we chatted I understood more and more why Matt and Milam were so passionate about people they didn’t know. About a country they didn’t even live in.

One month later after talking almost daily with Matt, I decided I wanted to help their cause. They seemed like they had a plan, and they were the types to stop at nothing to accomplish that plan. Their campaign, Striking Out Poverty, hit home with me. It brought my passion of baseball together with my passion for helping others. So it was a no brainer to make Striking Out Poverty the beneficiary of our end of the year charity event in 2016. But I wanted to do more than just that. I wanted to figure out ways to help them continue to raise money throughout the year. Next thing I know, Matt asks me if my buddy and business partner, Mike, and I want to go to the Dominican Republic with him and Milam.

This wasn’t a vacation. Matt and Milam both truly believed that if I’m going to be involved with Striking Out Poverty, then I needed to see what the issues were that they’re trying to solve are firsthand. They wanted to take me to the communities that they’re helping and meet the people. It was their version of a “vision trip”. So of course, I didn’t think twice. I’d never been out of the country and it has always been my dream to travel abroad to help those less fortunate than me in any way possible. It was a bucket list item. This random chance meeting in Nashville was now starting to feel like it was all meant to be and part of a bigger plan for me.

I invited a pro baseball player for the Seattle Mariners that I’ve known for a few years along with us. Daniel Robertson has always been a guy that has been passionate about helping others and wanting to get baseball equipment to kids that can’t afford it. I’ve known him since 2013, but had never met in person. So now this random meeting in Nashville just brought together a guy I play fantasy football with, chat with occasionally, played in the same organization with and work with but have never met, on a trip to another country to meet for the first time.

We hopped a plane and took off to the D.R.

The Dominican Republic was incredibly beautiful. We stayed in Santo Domingo and the ride from the airport to the hotel was one of the prettiest drives I’ve ever had. Yes there was poverty everywhere, but it was placed in the most beautiful backdrop I’d ever seen out of my home state of Oregon. We checked into the hotel, grabbed dinner, and rested up for day 1 of the vision trip.

EL MIRADOR, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC

The first community we went to was Mirador. Driving into Mirador (I believe this was in Mirador anyways) I had my first eye opening sight… As we went over a bridge there were two kids, probably between 8-10 years old, carrying a bucket and water jug. They were scaling down some rock into a slow moving, extremely muddy stream. This water they were pulling out was for them to cleanse with and cook with. Maybe even to drink, but I can’t confirm that. But either way, it made me think of my nephew Koy who was about the same age having to do that to survive. I’ve seen this kind of stuff on TV, but Matt and Milam were right… it doesn’t leave the same impact as it does when you see it in person. This quickly made this trip very real.

Mirador was a small community with some of the most beautiful trees I’d ever seen. They had a community center that we met in parked right next to a really cool baseball field. In each community except for 1, we’d sit in front of the community leaders. Going into this trip, I had a feeling that that there would be conflict within the communities of who wanted us there, and who didn’t. I had a feeling that a lot of people go to these communities and promise things they can’t fulfill that can break hope for the community members. I didn’t know if we would be accepted or not. I was quickly, and consistently proven completely wrong about that notion.

The community members introduced themselves, then presented what their goals were for their community. They said it was their dream to have a water well so that they could have clean drinking water. But then they said something that caught me off guard as their second dream. Yes they used the word dream. They dreamed of having a backstop on their baseball field.

When we got to Mirador, we walked around on the baseball field before meeting the community leaders. We felt out our positions on the field as if we were kids, looked at the surface, and a few of us even commented how nice the field surprisingly was. I even felt the urge to pick up a rock and toss it to get a feel of the field. But not once did any of us think “this field needs a backstop”. A backstop has never crossed my mind as a crucial part of the game of baseball. I’ve played since I can remember, and spent everyday of my life until age 24 thinking of the game. Not once though did I think of needing a backstop to play a game. But you know what, the community leaders were right! A game would last hours on hours if there wasn’t a backstop. Passed balls would have to be retrieved. Balls would be lost. They’d be damaged. Foul balls, passed balls, would literally make the game eventually no fun or too expensive to play when having to replace balls all of the time. Shoot, they had a kid in the community who has to walk miles to play on a field with a backstop and gear. Walk miles just to play a game and he’d do this everyday after school.

The community leaders then said that they need baseballs as well as they had no baseballs left. They also needed gloves, and gear to play the game. They had this beautiful baseball field, with no tools to play. I stood up during this discussion to see the field before gathering my thoughts… and my thoughts were that these are these peoples dreams and they’re dreaming of things that the people sitting in front of them could literally make reality in 1 weekend. We had a big leaguer, a rep for a sports agency, two passionate Food for the Hungry leaders, and myself who has more connections in baseball than I’ll ever know what to do with. We could literally provide enough baseballs for a year, enough gear for a league and build a backstop over a couple of days. They also said they needed somebody to teach their kids the game. This was attainable. They just had never done it before so they had no idea where to start. They needed help. They needed guidance. I knew immediately I could provide this for them and finally realized that I did have value to this community beyond just helping fundraise to build water wells. I never would have seen this without being there with the people and hearing it and seeing it.

They went further into detail about more important matters such as medicine access and drivable roads. But what caught my attention is how important this game is to the people of Mirador. This game they treated with such urgency and necessity. It was mind blowing, but so exciting at the same time. It was a whole community that loved and understood the benefits of the game of baseball in the same way that I did and that my family did. It felt like home. My buddy Ted with the Oakland A’s gave me a box of major league baseballs from their practice facility to donate to the communities in the D.R. to play with. Giving those awesome people some of the balls was one of the coolest things. Such amazing, kind, welcoming people. I can’t wait to go back to Mirador, and I can’t wait to dedicate the next year of my life and Athletes Brand to helping them accomplish some of their dreams. I quickly started to realize that this passion for baseball was consistent in each and every community that we visited in the Dominican Republic. The importance of baseball to the people of the D.R. was incredible. It was a sign of hope, and a chance to get away from daily struggles. A chance to build young men and teach so many vital assets to what it takes to be a positive role model in society.

CAMARON, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC

Santo Domingo SOPWe went straight from Mirador to the community of Camaron where we were treated with an amazing home cooked meal. Rafael and Taina, two community members that work with Food for the Hungry (the charity that runs Striking Out Poverty), welcomed us into their homes. They made us feel at home immediately and I quickly fell in love with Dominican food. As we ate though, I couldn’t help but listen to well over 50 kids playing ball on a field very near by. Rafael coaches all of the kids in the community and clearly has done an amazing job.

Of course we finished lunch, and walked down to the fields where they had 2 games going on, and kids hitting soft toss into a torn up net strung between two trees. The kids seemed completely distracted and I don’t know why… it might have been a bunch of white guys rolling in with a big camera following us, it might have been a girl on their baseball field, or it might have been something else… but I’m guess it was a combination of all of the above.

These kids had skills. I can promise you that kids where I grew up would be complaining about the playability of that field and scared to take a ground ball in the face. There’s no way that little league moms in the USA would allow their kids to play on this field these days. These kids showed no fear of the rocks and bumps. It was the same game, but a different culture and respect. These kids were playing because they loved this game. These kids were having fun. These kids played together. And DAMN THESE KIDS WERE GOOD!

A few things that stood out on this day.

  1. A kid got beaned in the knee and fell to the ground in pain while we were watching. Every kid on that bench jumped up and ran to him to show support so that he didn’t lay there alone.
  2. I was the only person that entire day to wear my hat backwards. You can thank Ken Griffey Jr for that bad habit. But that just shows as a testament as to how well these kids are being taught the respect of the game. I’ve done baseball camps in the USA in impoverished communities and one of the first things we have to tell the kids is always to keep their hats on the right way and respect the game.
  3. These kids respect the competition, and embrace competition. They’d applaud when our team would succeed, they’d give high fives, and they’d step up to a challenge.
  4. I don’t know a lick of Spanish.

We challenged the kids to a game where they loaned us their gloves, their bats, their helmets and shared their field for a few innings. What transpired after this I’d like to keep my own special memory with those that got to share it, but here’s a few key details. The kids threw a no hitter against us. A kid gets to tell his kids one day that he struck out a big leaguer. Another kid gets to tell his kids one day that he sawed off a former minor leaguer. And all of the kids get to share the story of how a girl was one of 3 players that got on base against them in a game against Americans one time. It was the first time a girl had ever played on that field. And sadly, the first time a major leaguer had ever stepped foot on that field… and that major leaguer was an American.

What I took away from this day was a lot. First off, something felt very different this day. Later this night I found out that my grandpa Harry had passed away. Matt mentioned a silver lining in that in a way it was kind of cool that of all of the days that he could have passed away, it was on this day. One of the greatest experiences of my life. A day that he would be able to watch me play baseball from above with kids in the Dominican Republic. It was the first time I’d ever missed the game since I quit playing in 2013. This game, will go down as one of the greatest experiences of my life.

Everything just clicked. Everybody was one in this game. Nobody was treated differently for their skin, language, age, sex or ability. We were a group of people from 30 year olds to 13 year olds or maybe younger. Americans and Dominicans. English speaking and Spanish speaking. Male and female. Baseball players and basketball players. There was even an arrant drone filming in the sky (I guess you had to be there to get that one). All on one field, playing one game, competing for one moment in time. We understood each other even though we didn’t know what words were being said. There was no player that hit where we thought “ah great here’s an out”. It was the first game I’ve ever played where I didn’t feel an ounce of frustration… and I went 0-3 against a 16 year old kid and we lost. It was literally just a moment that as we were in it, we knew that every action that happened was going to be a great memory that will never be forgotten. For that, thank you Camaron. Now I challenge you to a rematch and we will come ready to play next time with our A squad. 😉

Once again I dropped off some of the baseballs that the Oakland A’s donated, and we said our goodbyes, packed up, and went off to the next community.

LA COLA, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC

By the time we got to La Cola, we’d already had a super long day, but we were all mentally reenergized from the game in Camaron. Also, we were very late because of the game in Camaron. The community leaders in La Cola had been waiting a couple hours for our arrival and greeted us with “We are tired of waiting on you”. These guys had jokes haha.

This community leader group was a very confident group of people. They didn’t seem lost like Mirador did. We sat in their community center just like we did in Mirador… but there was a big difference. Mirador was in year 1 of their 10 year commitment with Food for the Hungry (FH). This means that they still had 9 more years to accomplish their dreams to get out of poverty with FH. La Cola on the other hand was in their 7th year working with FH. These guys had it on lock. They basically shared with us their successes. They had water. They had a community center. They seemed to have it all figured out. They wanted to put up a basketball court, but basically told us the their goals and said they will have them all done by the end of the year. They didn’t need FH anymore. They were even cracking jokes the whole way through. This was such a cool thing to see, and such an eye opening experience that shows the impact that FH actually is having on these communities.

We spent a little time in La Cola with some kids there before the sun went down, and we hit the dirt roads back to our hotel in Santo Domingo.

MARGARA II, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC

The next day, day 2, was a big difference from day 1. This day we spent in the city where as day 1 was in the country. The entry into Margara II was kind of nerve racking. From the warning to keep our valuables close by or in the car, to a little adolescent scuffle in the street, it was a very different feel from the country side in day 1.

Margara II we met at their community center with the Mother Leaders and Community Leaders just as the past communities we met. This community had very different issues though. Whereas the previous day, all of the communities had open land to have a baseball field… this community was in the city, where open land was scarce within walking distance. 3 of the community leaders were the communities athletic coaches. One, the youngest, was a former professional boxer who now helps with baseball and boxing in the community. The other, looked like a guy straight out of the movie Rocky. It was clear he was the boxing coach. And then the third guy was the one that seemed to be the leader, the baseball coach.

After discussion with the 3 men, we quickly realized their issue. They have the drive, and passion to put together a team and had the kids to play… but didn’t have a sustainable or safe field to play on and lacked the gear. What was a big bummer is that there was a beautiful baseball field called the field of dreams, right down the road, but it’s only for the elite team to play on and is gated off and locked up. We went for a walk with the men to check out their 2 current options of baseball fields and had a chance to see the community a bit. The path we took winded between houses, through yards, past pigs and roosters and through the grass along a river. The main field these kids had open to play on was a marsh that floods for a few months out of the year. There was no possible way for these kids to play here, and no possible way to invest into building a baseball field down there. It had the space, but as the Mother Leader said, it was just too unsafe for the kids. But, that doesn’t mean that Daniel and I couldn’t get in a few pitches of caps on that field before we left 😉 Oh, caps is literally just finding a stick to use as a bat, and a bottle cap to use as a ball. There’s your new way to play lesson of the day.

We then regathered and the men wanted to take us to their boxing gym. This was a cool spot. A concrete building with a dirt floor and broken glass all over. It had a hook where a punching bag once hung. A tire to practice balance in a back room. Posters of Dominican boxers on the wall, and sign on the front of the building with the name of the gym… however, the government made them close the gym because they lacked the proper equipment. They didn’t have hand wraps, or first aid kits. They didn’t have boxing gloves, and their bag had been worn out and unusable. For them to open the doors again for the kids to have an option to play a sport, they need to get all of the gear necessary but don’t have the money to do so.

From here, we crammed into the van, and drove to the other field that they said could be used. The other field was a few miles away from the community center, but in Margara, that was still walking distance for the kids. When we arrived at the field I was shocked to see that it was actually a field! It had a busted up backstop, a short right field wall (a fence of a house), base paths, and a mowed grass field. It was awesome. It was full of rocks and glass, but it was a field. Their problem is that somebody owned the property, and was allowing them to play on it until they sell it. They don’t want to get the kids into the game and reliant on the game, and then take the dream away from them if the owner of the property sells it, and the owner is currently trying to sell it.

On this field in Margara I though I got to have another very brief life long memory. As we were finishing up, Daniel and I tried to play another game of caps real quick. As we finished and started to walk away, 2 kids ran up and picked up the cap we were playing with and a stick, and began to toss the cap up and try to hit it themselves. So I absolutely had to go back and play with this kid. I got to get in 4 good pitches to a kid no older than 6 years old, before I got him a strike and he hammered it. That was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done as well. Even though it was brief, it was definitely a moment I’ll never forget.

KENNEDY, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC

From there we made a quick stop into a school in the Kennedy community. I really don’t think the teachers were expecting us because we clearly interrupted their classes, but it was totally worth it. Kids from 1st grade through 8th grade were in there and the younger they were, of course the louder they were when we walked in. We’d sell como estas, the whole class would yell “bien!” We walked by each classroom before we planned to leave, and then they let out for recess.

Recess in this school was not like recess when I grew up. Where I grew up in Oregon recess was basketball, soccer, football, 4 square, and building giant snow balls. Here, they let the kids into the street for some time outside. There was a little candy and toy stand setup outside where the kids would go buy candies, and small cheap plastic toys to play with for a little time. The kids were offering us their candy (of which I of course accepted), playing with their toys, and full of so much joy and laughter. It was definitely an uplifting moment before we headed to the last stop of the day.

LA23, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC

The final community we went to was very different from the others. This one in my mind was the community that was just like the footage you see in those sponsor a child commercials on tv. It was definitely the toughest community to see.

We met with the community leaders here who were very positive about the direction of their community. The pastor was an extremely positive, kind person who truly made things not feel as bad as it seemed. I know a lot of people believe “well poverty is all they know so why should they feel depressed? It’s normal to them.” This might be true. But that doesn’t make it “ok” for them to have to live that way when there is a much better way of life that they can enjoy. A healthier way of life. One with less dangers. Yes they’re making the most of it. But there’s so much more that the world has to offer and so much that we can do for them, and they’re open to allow us to help them accomplish the things they want done.

We took time simply walking through the community. Seeing a very brief view of their issues. Once again, just as every other community though, they were extremely inviting and kind to us. They literally welcomed us into their properties with no pre made plans to do so. Their houses were made of plywood and metal siding patched together in any way possible to cover the holes. When it rains really hard, some of the people are forced to go into top stories in these structures because the waters flood out the bottom floors of their homes.

It caught a few of our eyes that these homes seemed so unsteady, but that a few of them had satellite dishes and were watching Walker Texas Ranger on their TV’s. What came to light to me here was this thought… it’s amazing that these people have easier access to electricity, television and shows from another country, than they have access to drinkable water that is vital to life. This community was a true testament to never having an excuse, and making things happen. One home had poles with cement buckets on each end as their own private gym for God’s sake. Now tell me your excuse of why you don’t work out.

CONCLUSION

This trip was truly life changing for me. I grew up in a middle class family in Southern Oregon. We have some of the best drinking water on the planet in Oregon straight from the tap. We have farms, cattle, fish and commerce. There were jobs, and opportunity. I had my own bedroom, my own tv, and new baseball equipment every year. I’ve seen poverty on TV. But until you experience it. Until you meet the people. There’s just no way to truly comprehend it and understand how blessed your life truly is.

I’m so thankful to the team at Food for the Hungry and Matt Price and Milam Byers of the campaign Striking Out Poverty, for inviting myself, Mike and Daniel to go with their group on the first ever vision trip for the charity. I wanted to help before. But now I don’t want to help. Now I will be creating change in the Dominican Republic. And I’m starting with the first community, Mirador. This year I plan to help build a backstop, provide coaching, provide gear and tools to play the game, and most importantly, I plan to build a water well in this community this year.

I went into this trip with the mindset of figuring out why I shouldn’t work with Food for the Hungry because some of it seemed a little too good to be true. I wanted to see where the flaws were and how they were handling them. But they answered every questions, and the community members spoke incredibly highly of everyone at FH, that there’s no way possibly I can convince myself to not work with this charity. Thank you Food for the Hungry for everything that you do. Now lets strike out poverty!

To Get Involved

Go to StrikingOutPoverty.com to help the mission of ending poverty in the Dominican Republic through baseball.

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