The Pittsburgh Pirates’ Gregory Polanco pays his blessings forward through involvement in the Striking Out Poverty campaign in the Dominican Republic
Roberto Clemente said, “If you have a chance to accomplish something that will make things better for people coming behind you, and you don’t do that, you’re wasting your time on this Earth.” Fellow Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Gregory Polanco spent time in his native Dominican Republic during the offseason ensuring that his time on the planet is well-spent.
Polanco is an enthusiastic supporter of the Striking Out Poverty campaign through Food for the Hungry. The organization works to assist some of the world’s most vulnerable communities by providing resources as basic as clean water, medical aid, food, education and vocational training and most importantly, hope. The Striking Out Poverty campaign is a baseball-themed effort focused on nine impoverished communities in the Dominican Republic in need of basic resources.
Polanco knows firsthand the extent of the poverty in the Dominican Republic. His family once lived in one of the communities targeted by the campaign.
“I have always been a person inspired to help others progress,” Polanco told Pirates Breakdown with the assistance of translator Mike Gonzalez. So once Striking Out Poverty officials shared their mission with the 25-year-old left hander and asked if he would “be interested in serving with them,” he recalled, his response was immediate. “With no hesitation, I said, ‘of course,’” he said.
Baseball as a Hand Up
The brainchild of Milam Byers, Manager, Sports Partnerships for Food for the Hungry (FH), Striking Out Poverty was borne from a visit to the DR he took about three years ago, with a contingent of influencers and celebrities from the music industry. “I couldn’t get over how dominant baseball is in that culture – and not simply as a way off of the island, but the grandmas and the three-year-old kids and everybody in-between would come out of the woodwork to see baseball in the community,” he said.
That lit a spark in him.
Most people he came into contact with outside of the FH organization, he said, probably only knew of the Dominican Republic because either they’d traveled there on a honeymoon or cruise, or because there are a number of major league baseball players who call the Caribbean nation with a population of nearly 10 million home.
“They probably didn’t realize the disparity of the poverty, probably don’t realize that many of these communities don’t have basic things like running water, drinking water, sources of secure food and stable education systems,” he said. “So, I just began to wonder why can’t we work with professional baseball players and teams to get fans involved.”
To do that, Byers knew he’d need some major-league help. That assistance came in the form of a man who is no stranger to the game of baseball or the idea of serving those in need: Roberto Clemente Jr.
Like Polanco, as soon as he knew the concept and the intention of the Striking Out Poverty campaign, Clemente Jr. was on board. He now serves as their Global Ambassador.
“I’ve been involved with charity work really since I was very young…I go to a lot of different places and I understand the need. And when I heard about the campaign, it made a lot of sense,” he said. “In all of the years that I’ve been doing charity work, this is perhaps the one that I have loved the most. I’m going forward 100-percent with this effort and try to get more players and organizations involved.”
Making an Impact
Food for the Hungry is presently in 57 total communities in the Dominican Republic. They originally entered the country in 1979 to assist communities in the aftermath of Hurricane David. Their approach is different than other aid organizations, Byers explained.
“We walk with the community and we have an exit strategy from the very beginning,” he said. FH typically stays in a community for 10-12 years before graduating them and moving into another location in need. “We empower the leaders, the families, the churches – we empower them to do this change themselves. We give them the resources, the training, we invest a lot into achievement capital. Our goal within that 10-12 years is to get them to self-sustainability. The kids and families are thriving, they have a future and they now have hope,” he said.
The nine communities addressed through the Striking Out Poverty campaign are some of the poorest and most vulnerable in the country, Byers explained, and those that are in earliest phases of the aid process. They are: El Mirador, Camaron, Los Canos, Placer Bonito, Cruz De Vicente, Vallecito, La 23 and Batista. The way the program works is that each community is a new “inning” – hence nine – and an inning is complete once its 2017 goal is met. Each community goal sits at nearly $100,000, with dollar amounts assigned for specific needs such as water purification systems, community education centers, farmer training and capacity-building, improving existing water structures and sports programs and baseball fields.
Walking in Their Shoes
To really understand the depth of the needs in these communities, Food for the Hungry coordinated two trips to those locations this past winter for coordinators, athletes and influencers. Polanco was so energized by the first trip that he asked to accompany the group on the second one as well, Byers said.
It wasn’t until the group was in the van and planning to head out one day that the FH coordinators learned that Polanco had a personal connection to the Striking Out Poverty campaign.
“One of the communities we visited was Villa Mella, a place my family once lived in. It honestly hasn’t changed much. Still the same level of poverty and struggle. The lack of light, water and other resources has remained,” Polanco said. “Howebver, one thing that brought me much joy was learning that they are building an amazing school in the community that will help many of the kids, not only in education, but also in many areas of growth,” he added.
The visits helped establish a starting point in the minds of those on the trip and cement relationships with the people living in the affected communities, Clemente Jr. said.
“We were able to see not only the work that had been done, but the work that needs to be done and be able to understand where the money’s going, meet the people that are affected and experience the communities that are impacted,” he said.
For Polanco, whose star shines white hot in the Dominican Republic, the community visits brought his world full-circle.
“Being someone who lived through poverty and tough living situations, I know what it can mean to a kid to see a professional ball player visit their community and serve them. I remembered as a kid having Dominican minor league ballplayers visit my community and cater to us and how much not only did that act of courtesy touch me, but also how much joy and inspiration it brought me,” he said.
The Seattle Mariners’ Daniel Robertson, Miami Marlins’ Dee Gordon and New York Yankees’ Rob Refsnyder are among some of the other MLBers who also participated in community visits with the Striking Out Poverty campaign. The goal is to have at least one player on each MLB team affiliated with the campaign, as well as the support of the MLB Players’ Association, Clemente Jr. said.
Clemente Jr. called his experience visiting the targeted communities awesome.
“It was an awesome trip not only because of the group of celebrities we were with and the excited crowds they drew, but because of the understanding that developed that there was a commitment from these people coming down, from these people seeing with their own eyes the work that FH and Striking Out Poverty is doing,” he said.
Polanco isn’t sure who benefited more from the visits, him or the people he met.
“As we visited these communities, I was able to witness communities filled with humble and loving people, that no matter their situation, they weren’t allowing anything to rob them of their joy, hope and peace. Their level of hospitality genuinely impacted me as well,” he said. “I actually believe that I was more impacted by them as I visited than what I was able to impact them through my visit,” he added.
For Love of the Game
At first glance, it seems strange to see “sports programs and baseball fields” added as a budget line item for each of the nine communities slated for aid by Striking Out Poverty. Especially considering that many of the targeted communities are struggling for clean drinking water and basic health care. Polanco explained, however, that for Dominicans, baseball is more than just a sport.
“In the Dominican Republic, sports becomes our path towards a better life and a better us. Sports teaches us the value of discipline, teamwork, responsibility and many more,” he said.
And to participate in sports, there is a need for safe places to play and basic equipment like bats, balls and gloves. Each of those items is impossible to come by for people living on less than $2 a day, Byers said.
There’s something else that keeping young men involved in baseball does for a community, Polanco added.
“After education, sports is a great priority in the Dominican Republic. I believe that the more we attract these kids into sports, the more we are distracting them away from a delinquent type of lifestyle,” he said.
Clemente Jr. agreed.
“There’s nothing to do…Being able to give these kids a place to continue to play the game and stay out of trouble and get better at the sport they love is powerful. Perhaps one or two or more of these kids will be able to get to professional baseball, become major league stars and then come back and help their families and their communities,” he said. “But we will never know unless we have places for these kids to be safe and sound in their own communities.”
The whole idea of Striking Out Poverty, Byers explained, is to instill hope to the poorest and most vulnerable communities through baseball. Once they complete the first “game” with these nine communities, the plan is to move on to play a few more to bring help to more people in the Dominican Republic. Eventually, they have a broader goal of moving the program to more countries.
“We have an overarching vision of the power that baseball can have. It doesn’t have to only help those people who love baseball, but it can help everyone. We believe that everyone has dignity and purpose and we want to help everyone,” he said. “And we’re just crazy enough to think baseball can do some big things.”
Polanco thinks that they have found a winning formula with the program.
“To many of our Dominican communities, sports becomes our hope. That’s why Striking Out Poverty and their approach has been so impactful,” he said. “I am genuinely grateful to be a part of their program and honored to serve alongside of them.”
The feeling is mutual, Byers said.
“(Gregory’s) an exceptional young man. He’s different in all the best ways. Very humble, very intentional, so I couldn’t be more excited that he is one of the first Dominican-born players to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to do this. We’re going to make the most of this,’” he added.
Ways to Help
There are a number ways for fans to participate in the Striking Out Poverty campaign:
Kyle Mauch, founder of popular clothier Athletes Brand, is a big supporter of the campaign. They developed “K Poverty” t-shirts and tank tops, (pictured here on Pittsburgh Pirates centerfielder Starling Marte) available for purchase now on their website, with proceeds benefiting the cause. T-shirts in each MLB team’s colors are forthcoming, Byers said.
Direct donations can be made on the Striking Out Poverty website.
The most important way to help, however, explained Clemente Jr. is also the easiest. “We need people to really get engaged and spread the word,” he said.
“Everybody can be a part of this, every step is a step towards helping people who truly need it,” Byers added. “Our hope is that this baseball community that we love can come together and start something truly revolutionary and change these places where these families live.”
A crew from ESPN accompanied one of the groups on their tours of some of the communities targeted by the Striking Out Poverty campaign. Watch their remarkable story here:
Cover photo courtesy David D. White/Food for the Hungry