Sports teaches teamwork, but the boys on the SYA Mazda Mets travel baseball team are also learning caring and compassion.
A year ago, they collected backpacks full of school supplies for elementary-school children on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Pine Ridge, S.D. And last month, they gave up their spring break, flew to South Dakota and built the children some beds.
NOW, DEEPLY affected by the abominable living conditions they found there, these Centreville-based Little Leaguers are embarking on another fund-raising campaign so they may return in August. They plan to bring baseball gear and offer further help in whatever way they can.
"I went out there expecting — on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the highest — to see poverty at level 10," said Head Coach Jay Corwin. "But the poverty level on the reservation was probably 50. It was nothing I ever imagined I'd see in the United States — not in my lifetime."
Corwin, a firefighter with Station 16 in Clifton, learned about the Lakota Tribe of the Pine Ridge Reservation while studying Native Americans. And once he did, he felt compelled to do something firsthand about their situation. So from April 1-6, he, Assistant Coach Bruce Thayer and 11 boys, age 13, lent a hand. And the experience changed them all.
The team members come from Centreville, Fairfax and Herndon and, said Corwin, "My kids were moved by the whole thing. On several occasions, they asked me why these conditions exist in our country. "They'd say, 'Coach, when we have all these things, why do these boys and girls go to bed at night hungry and without heat?'"
The bed-building was done through RE-MEMBER, a nonprofit organization there that does home repairs and provides blankets for the 30,000 people on the reservation. Most Lakota children have never slept in a bed, so RE-MEMBER provides the components and its staff plus volunteers put them together.
ACCORDING TO the organization's Web site, www.re-member.org, 97 percent of the population there lives below the federal poverty level on an average annual income of $3,700. And without public transportation or industry, the unemployment rate is 85 percent.
Temperatures range from 60 below zero to 120 degrees, but most of the homes have no heat, air conditioning or running water. Tragically, said Corwin, "I saw, with my own eyes, that there are children in the U.S. who go to sleep and don't wake up the next day because they froze to death."
He said many of the homes are three-bedroom trailers — each housing 10-12 people. Furnishings are few and, said Corwin, "The black mold in one trailer was so thick, you could see mold spores on the ceiling and walls. But these are people who have to decide between putting food on the table, gas in the car or paying medical bills — if they can even find medical care."
There's no trash pickup, and the nearest large town is 60 miles away. "The residents get a subsidy of about $80/month from the federal government, but there are no jobs to supplement that," said Corwin. "The dropout rate from the reservation schools is 80 percent, and teen suicide there is 150 percent higher than the U.S. average."
He said the Lakota children have no blankets, coats or hats, and he spoke of a brother and sister, Striker, 3, and Jetta, 4, who live in the trailer with the black mold and no running water.
"The day we installed their beds, it was 25 degrees outside, half the windows in their home were broken and the only thing separating them from the elements was a thin sheet of plastic," said Corwin. "It was as cold inside as it was outside."
He made several Lakota friends, and one of them, a man named Jerome High Horse — who lives on the reservation and helps RE-MEMBER build beds — begged him not to forget them. Corwin promised he wouldn't and also promised to return.
After paying for their travel and lodging expenses, the team had a few hundred dollars left, so the members decided to spend it on people especially in need. That's when they discovered the deplorable conditions in Striker's and Jetta's home.
UPSET BY WHAT they saw, the two coaches and the ballplayers gave their extra money to High Horse's wife Theresa who traveled 60 miles to Gordon, Neb., to buy the two children coats and shoes. She returned with several bags of food and clothing, and it was then Corwin learned that the toddlers live with their grandparents and their mother has cancer.
"The Lakota made it clear that it's not anybody's responsibility but theirs to fix the problems on the reservation," said Corwin. "But they so desperately need the help. Our goal now is to be able to get support from our prosperous area so we can go back there and help again."
Toward that end, checks payable to Pine Ridge Native American Relief Fund may be sent to it at 13033 Farthing Ale Drive, Herndon, VA 20171.
Corwin said corporate sponsorship is especially needed, plus good ideas for ways the team can organize a movement from this part of the country to provide some help for those at Pine Ridge. "It's not about politics or skin color," he said. "It's about children going to bed at night with no blankets and no food in their stomachs."
Any potential sponsor, church groups or civic organizations who'd like Corwin to share in person what he saw may call him at 703-988-0667. And he truly hopes people here will respond. He appreciates the private donations that helped make the spring trip possible, as well as an anonymous check he received for $1,000.
"I think one of the reasons the Lakota don't get much help is that they're so isolated," he said. "You drive for miles and miles and it's just barren. They feel like they've been forgotten. The overwhelming feeling I got as I entered people's homes was: 'No shoes, no food, no clothes, no hope.'"
AFTER ALL, said Corwin, "When you're not afforded any opportunity to succeed, how do you wake up tomorrow and say, 'This is going to be a better day?'"
Baseball is the biggest summer activity for the Lakota children. But for uniforms, children just write their numbers on the backs of their shirts with a marker. So the Mazda Mets plan to return in August with baseball equipment courtesy of Annandale Sports and will also share their baseball-playing knowledge with the children.
Corwin's son Kyle, a Stone Middle seventh-grader, said the trip was "a wake-up call to see the difference in conditions between here and there. It changed the way I look at life. A bad day here is nothing, compared to the way they live there."
He said people here often discard leftover food from dinner, but "I realize that's something a kid starving half to death out there could be eating." As for the beds, Kyle felt good "knowing that every minute we spent building a bed was a minute a kid could have sleeping in one for the first time."
Owen Saul, 13, of Trinity Christian School, said the Lakota were extremely nice and welcomed them into their homes. "They were very thankful, and it made you feel really good that you were able to help," he said. "And seeing people sitting on a bed you made is an incredible thing."
"I definitely learned to be thankful for what I've got," said Owen. "Their baseball field has tires for bases and their grass is pretty much weeds and hard sand. So Coach reminded us that, when we think some fields are bad here, it could be a lot worse."
PARKER HILL, of Herndon Middle School, said the hardest thing was "going to the houses and trying not to cry in front of the people or they'd feel sadder. We wanted them to know we were there to help them, not to feel sorry for them."
He said children there wouldn't even think to ask their parents for the things kids do here because "they don't even have the things we take for granted." His wish, said Parker, would be "to help them out of their poverty so they could live a life that most people in the U.S. do."