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The Team with a Big Heart

Will build beds for poor children on Indian reservation.

On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Pine Ridge, S.D., 97 percent of the population lives below the federal poverty level. Most of the homes have no running water, and families sleep on hard floors.

But, touched by their plight, a Centreville-based Little League baseball team is going to do something about it. The 11 boys on the SYA Mazda Mets 13-U travel baseball team are going to give up their spring break, fly to South Dakota and build the children some beds.

"I WANTED to bring awareness to this situation," said head coach, Jay Corwin, who's also a firefighter with Station 16 in Clifton. "And I felt very strongly that, instead of sending help, we'd send ourselves."

The team is composed of boys from Centreville, Fairfax and Herndon, and their motto for this undertaking is "One nation apart, one action united." Explained Corwin: "We're so many thousands of miles apart, yet one action on our part can help close that gap and do such good."

He learned about the Lakota Tribe of the Pine Ridge Reservation while studying Native Americans. And last spring, with the blessing of then head coach Bruce Thayer, the Mazda Mets collected 120 backpacks full of school supplies and sent them to an elementary school on the reservation.

"The boys were excited about what we accomplished and asked me what was next," said Corwin. "So I researched to see what we could do, and realized we needed to go there."

Exploring the Internet, he discovered RE-MEMBER, a nonprofit organization right on the reservation. It responds to the needs of the 30,000 people there, for example, doing home repairs and providing blankets. So Corwin called and found out about the Spring Break Alternative Program. Volunteers are housed in a dormitory setting and help build bunk beds.

"Many of the Lakota don't have beds," said Corwin. "Most of the children have never slept in one. So RE-MEMBER will provide the components for the beds and, with the help of their staff, we'll put them together."

He and three other adults will chaperone the boys and, said Corwin, "We're just really hoping to make a positive impact in the time we're there. The boys and staff members will deliver the beds right to the homes."

The boys will also spend a couple hours each day learning about the tribe's culture. Because the Lakota are very proud, explained Corwin, that fact will make them more receptive to receiving outside help.

The 2-million-acre reservation is in Jackson and Shannon counties — two of the poorest counties in the U.S. — and the people there live in impoverished conditions in trailers or little shacks. In many cases, said Corwin, 20-30 members of an extended family all live together in an area the size of an average, Fairfax County living room.

Said Corwin: "What's exciting about this — and what I think is going to make it a total success — is when a 13-year-old boy from Virginia, who has never seen such living conditions, goes sadly into the home of possibly another 13-year-old boy, but leaves happy that he could do something to make a difference."

However, step one for the Little Leaguers is raising the money so they can go. The trip will cost each player about $900, so the team is starting its fund-raising now and will continue doing so until it's time to leave.

"They're really an outstanding group of boys with huge hearts," said Corwin. "What we're attempting to do is very large in scale, and we have a huge mountain to climb in terms of raising funds. But if these boys on my team approach this with the same character with which they play every weekend, we'll be able to accomplish this."

But they still can't do it on their own without the help of the community, so the coaches established an official fund for that purpose. Checks payable to Pine Ridge Native American Relief Fund may be sent to that fund at 13033 Farthing Ale Drive, Herndon, VA 20171. Said Corwin: "We're hoping people here will open up their hearts and help."

In addition, Moe's Southwest Grill in Chantilly (5005 Westone Plaza) has offered to hold the first fund-raiser for the team on Thursday, Oct. 12, from 5-10 p.m. During that time, a portion of the proceeds will go toward the fund drive.

"The owner, Frank Maresca, has been so kind to us," said Corwin. "We really appreciate all his help. He told me he was moved by what we wanted to do. He did something like this when he was younger, so he said he'd do whatever he could to help the kids."

Enterprise Rental Cars will also try to provide a couple vans to take the team to and from the airport in Rapid City, S.D. (The reservation is about two hours from there). And Northwest Airlines has agreed to a discounted fare.

And for the people who live on the reservation, help can't come soon enough. (For more information, see www.friendsofpineridgereservation.org).

According to the RE-MEMBER Web site, www.re-member.org, the average annual income on the reservation is $3,700. And since there's no public transportation, very little retail and no industry, the unemployment rate is 85 percent.

Temperatures there range from 60 below zero to 120 degrees, but most of the homes have no heat or air conditioning. Most do not have running water, either. Because of these things, plus lack of adequate medical care, the infant mortality rate on Pine Ridge is three times the national average.

"Life expectancies on the reservation are the shortest anywhere in the Western Hemisphere — 47 for males and 52 for females," said Corwin. "The adolescent suicide rate is four times higher than the national average, and the diabetes rate is eight times the national average, affecting half the people over 40."

A staggering 52 percent of the homes have single parents. The teacher turnover rate there is also alarming — eight times the national average. And, not surprisingly, the student dropout rate is 68 percent.

Said Corwin: "If people would spend just 15 minutes looking at these two Web sites, I'm hoping they'll feel led to help us in some way. We live in an area where resources are plenty, and they live where resources are few." He said his desire to bring the team there in person crystallized a few weeks ago while driving some of the boys to practice.

"One of our pitchers, Josh Luatua, told me, 'Coach, I just wish that we could do one thing that would wipe out the poverty in Pine Ridge forever,'" said Corwin. "And it was with that comment that I knew we had to take these kids to Pine Ridge. We thought this would be a good, humanitarian thing to do.""

Corwin and the other coaches want their players to "look poverty in the face so they'll never forget these people. We want this to be a life-changing event for them." They also hope to continue helping the Lakota after returning home.

Lucien Fox, a father of one of the boys on the team, is also playing a pivotal role in this effort. When Corwin first decided to proceed with this plan, he sent out an e-mail asking for a volunteer to help him coordinate things. Within 30 minutes, Fox, of Oak Hill, responded.

"We were a new family to the team and I thought it was a good opportunity to participate," said Fox. "And as Jay talked about what he wanted to do — and described the desperate poverty out there — his passion really came through and got me, too."

"We can all write checks to causes, but he wanted the kids to really experience the need and see firsthand how they can help others," continued Fox. "Our kids in Fairfax County have so many things. So being out there where the kids have nothing will be quite a learning experience for them."