Batter up: Project Béisbol gives Colombian kids “a damn chance”

Justin Halladay

Justin Halladay

Teamwork. Discipline. Leadership. All qualities, according to Justin Halladay, that baseball can develop in kids eager to learn. Since 2008, his organization, Project Béisbol, has been transforming the lives children throughout Latin America. Currently shagging fly balls and rounding the bases in 42 communities and 10 departments, Justin and his team of  volunteers have brought the benefits of America’s pastime to more than 1,000 Colombian kids. All told, Project Béisbol has reached 2,600 kids in 60 communities in 6 countries in Latin America. For Halladay, “it’s a model of change that just might work.”

What brought you to Colombia?

I needed to be closer to the action. I’d been running Project Béisbol from the U.S. for six years and we’d been in Colombia for two, but we’d only spend a week or two each year working with the communities and the kids.

The rest of the year we’d spend on administrative tasks and securing equipment. We’re a 100% volunteer organization, so it became a bit exhausting.

Colombia isn’t known at the moment for producing baseball players.

There have been a few: Orlando Cabrera, Jose Quintana, Julio Teheran, Donovan and Jhonatan Solano. They’re building the image of Colombia as a force in baseball.

Most of the new players are coming from the coast – places like Cartagena, Barranquilla, Monteria, and the Cordobá department. That’s where we’re focusing a lot of our efforts.

What got you started in this?

I studied the evolution of baseball in Latin America in grad school and I travelled throughout the region afterwards – Brazil, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Cuba. I noticed the passion for the sport. I also noticed a lot of impoverished situations and a severe lack of equipment.

Coming from the United States that was tough for me to understand. There’s an abundance of surplus equipment in the U.S. that we don’t use.

Teams in the U.S. buy new bats and helmets almost every year. Balls get replaced as soon as they’re scuffed up.

Down here they’re playing with balls made of tied up rubber bands. That seemed to me a like a problem we could solve.

How do you choose where to start a project?

We look at four factors. The first two are the local interest in baseball and the need for support.

The third is the exposure the country receives from the international community.

Take the Dominican Republic, for example. Obviously there’s a passion and a need. But the country receives a lot of attention from all the major league teams. Everyone’s looking for talent and there’s a lot of traffic. We don’t feel we’d be able to make an impact there.

The fourth factor is operational feasability and safety. Take Venezuela, for example. Baseball is its most popular sport, the teams really need help, and they don’t get a lot of exposure. But the current political and economic situation makes it difficult for us to operate there.

Nicaragua met all four criteria, so it was the most logical place to start. The second-most-logical place to go was the coast of Colombia.

How do you engage a community? What does it look like?

We engage with communities in two ways. Sometimes we’ll receive a request for equipment from a coach of an existing team. Sometimes the request comes from a player’s mom.

Other times we’ll engage with a local community directly. In Bogotá, for example, we’ve made presentations in high schools to gauge the interest.

Now, Bogotá is a soccer city; baseball doesn’t get a lot of attention. There’s not a lot of infrastructure. But the response from kids has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic. The kids are ecstatic.

In these cases, we supply the equipment, we teach people how to manage the program, and we look for local leaders to keep it running. Usually in every community there are a few kids who take a lead. Either they’re really good at the sport or they’re natural leaders

These programs benefit the city as well, so we look to local authorities to support the program on the infrastructure front.

The fourth aspect of our mission is international exchange. We work with the American embassies in Colombia and Nicaragua, and the U.S. State Department to send select kids to the U.S. for cultural and educational programs. We invite volunteers from all around the world.

We also offer English instruction to the kids and coaches, which is a really exciting new aspect of our programs.

A lot of our volunteers are native English speakers, so it’s an amazing opportunity for them to augment their activities and give the kids something more.

We’ve worked through Mayors’ offices in San Antero in Cordobá, and in El Bagre in Antioquia and seen great results.

You’d be so surprised how excited these kids get when you add an international dimension to learning. Exposing them to people from another country really enlivens the academic environment. It really shows in the kids’ progress.

What successes have you seen on the field?

Some of the best teams in the country have players we’ve supported. They’ve played in national championships in Cartagena. These are kids who’d never seen a baseball before.

We’ve also seen a large increase in the number of girls who play. Girls get less attention than boys in this country on almost every front, but in some of our projects girls make up half a team. That’s really exciting to see.

Photo courtesy of Project Beisbol

Girls’ participation is increasing. (Project Beisbol)

Our program in Medellin is expanding. The English program is flourishing. One of the volunteers secured a private thousand-dollar government grant for the program. We’re going there with more equipment and volunteers next month.

Not every story is a wild success, though. In Bogotá, we tried to work with the community in the hills of Ciudad Bolívar. It’s the poorest part of the city. Weak family structures are common. There’s no aqueduct system. There’s trash everywhere. The geography isn’t great for it.

In the end, we had to pause the program. We didn’t have the organization within the community to keep it going long-term. But we’ve learned our lesson. We’re reorganizing and looking for partners to make it work up there.

Kids are amazingly resilient and optimistic. All they want is a damn chance and something to do with their spare time. When we go back they’ll be ready to play.

The moral of the story is that when there are leaders in the community, it can work. And it will work.

Take Garzones, about 250 km south of Cartagena. To get there it’s a four-hour drive from the airport on dirt roads. But but you arrive in a field of dreams.

The kids there are playing with really beat-up equipment. But you’ll also find a coach who’s been working with kids for 45 years. He’s barefoot, he’s in his 70s, obviously not doing it for the money.

That’s one of the beautiful aspects of what we do. Once you see that it’s difficult to not want to keep helping.

What do the kids learn from playing baseball?

Baseball requires a great deal of teamwork. On offense it’s also one of the few sports where you fail more often than you succeed. Those are key concepts that we focus on. Not everyone succeeds at every aspect of their lives; everyone is going to have difficult failures.

Baseball is amazing in that respect because it teaches you to forget about that failure to focus on supporting your teammates. That builds character.

Baseball is also an individual sport. When you’re at the plate you are completely alone. You have one tenth of one second to decide whether or not to swing. That’s completely on you. That requires an amazing amount of discipline. Few other sports can deliver those attributes in children.

Photo courtesy of Project Beisbol

“Usually one or two kids will step up to become leaders.” (Project Béisbol)

We want the kids to take these attributes into their communities. You can’t tell a kid to figure something out from nothing. But we can say “here are the seeds.” We give them the equipment that they can’t get here and task them to find the field space.

Usually one or two kids will step up to become leaders. Sometimes it’s kids who may not have thought of themselves as leaders until we came along.

We’re very proud of that. We’re very privileged to work with the kids, parents, and coaches who really make it work.

What do you find fulfilling about the work?

It keeps me grounded. It’s important to me to work with people who don’t have the love in their environment that they deserve.

Photo courtesy of Project Beisbol

“The response has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic.” (Project Béisbol)

Just the fact that some strangers from another country care enough to come here and do this for them – that there’s enough love left in the world to keep on doing this – kids remember that.

One of the most rewarding parts of the job for me is meeting other great people who want to make an impact through what they love to do, and also have a great time.

This isn’t about sacrifice. This is about doing what you love to do and helping others. To me that’s a model for change that might just work.

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