It’s early 2015, and I’m sitting on my porch in Adelaide, Australia, where I was playing that winter, and I get an e-mail:
Can you send me your contact telephone number so I can call you to discuss playing baseball for our club (Maitland Giants) in Cape Town and possibly working with my sports NPO - www.playsport4life.org
I had been out of college a couple years and while I was finished playing baseball in the Phillies farm system, I was still chasing my dream of making it back to the show. My plans were set for the spring, playing stateside with the Long Island Ducks. At this point in my career, I wanted to use the game I love to go places I couldn’t have gone otherwise. With an opportunity to go to a place like South Africa and help out a good cause, I didn’t need much convincing.
The man who had put this opportunity on my radar, Miles October, is the founder of @PlaySport4Life. On their social media page, they describe themselves as “a non-profit organization using sport to change peoples lives”. It wasn’t long into my experience working, coaching, and being a part of the communities around Cape Town before I realized that Miles and PS4L were making a massive impact through sports.
Soon after the email, we spoke on the phone and formed a quick connection. It wasn’t long before we formed a common goal: helping his childhood team, the Maitland Giants, make it to the top league in Cape Town; and helping out his non-profit. I was on board, literally. Ten months later I was on a flight to Cape Town.
I didn’t know much about where I was going, besides for some famous names like Nelson Mandela and Charlize Theron. My introduction to PS4L was the two duffle bags of baseball equipment that Miles had bought and I brought over on my flight. Later in my stay I would have friends visit from the US who would bring even more boxes of equipment.
When I landed in Cape Town, Miles and I finally met. As he toured me around, I felt welcomed with open arms. Almost immediately I fell in love with the mountains, the beaches, the culture, and, above all, the people. As I expanded my horizons, seeing more of the city and country, I found that for all those Miles was helping in the city, there were many more in need throughout the rural areas around South Africa.
In my introductions to my new team and home, I was welcomed with a customary Braai (South African Barbeque). It was a memorable experience, where I met my teammates, community and some of the kids I’d be coaching for the first time. That first night I learned a lot about the country and people, including some personal stories about the apartheid, the current government upheaval, and about Gift Ngoepe, who became the first African born player to play in Major League Baseball later that year.
Before I left the braai, I told the kids I would be back the next day with presents and could see the excitement in their eyes. The little I could offer was so greatly appreciated by the children growing up in Maitland, South Africa. Their lives, in Maitland, Kensington, and the District 6 neighborhood I called home, were still impacted by the events of apartheid just a few decades prior. Many of them had grown up thinking they’d only be able to go so far because of the color of their skin. I tried to tell them that more was possible than they imagined. The best way I found to be a positive force for the kids was through PS4L.
When I showed up the next day for my first practice, I pulled up to the field, and found the kids, waiting for us, playing baseball with sticks and rocks. When I was able to open the locker room and show them the equipment we had brought them, the screams of joy for things I had taken for granted: gloves, bats, helmets, was confirmation that I wanted to help out with this cause as much as I could.
With access to proper equipment, the kids began to get better at the game. Beyond that, the focus and discipline they learned on the diamond provided skills for their difficult lives off the field.
All you need is a chance to play. Falling in love with the game can change your life forever. It did for me, and it did for the children in Maitland. Sports are capable of delivering real and lasting changes to some of the world's poorest communities. Through sports, children have a real chance to gain confidence and have a voice. It can help them realize or even exceed what they previously thought was possible. Sports can play a fundamental role in changing lives of young people across the world. I saw it first hand.
The reality of their lives was clear during my extended stay, with my car being broken into more than once and bars outside windows and doors throughout the city. Just past the small suburb of Maitland, where I did my work for PS4L, are some of the poorest regions in the world, lacking running water and with locals getting around on mules and bicycles.
Ultimately, I would like to see the exposure to sports lead to access to a college education. While none of them can fathom that reality today, being trapped by failing schools, this can be an outlet to cultivate work ethic and pride. This is a major goal for Miles and PS4L as well.
In my two years in South Africa, I did similar work in a dozen elementary schools, being an ambassador for the game I love.
It has been three years since I got to play with the kids in Maitland and I have another opportunity to give back. My friends and former Maitland Giant teammates, Jaz Shergill and Connor Walsh, have started their own initiative, ECDC, in Toronto, South Africa and Uganda.
Their efforts start with an equipment drive and donations to PS4L. With a little help from friends, teammates and supporters, we can change lives through sports.
Please consider a donation of baseball/any sports equipment or money to help fund events. I can say with firsthand experience that it will be immensely appreciated.
If you’re interested in donating, you can message me @Matt_Soren36 or @ProDiamondTraining on Instagram or Twitter to find out more. We have multiple facilities on board to be donation drop-offs. #DoYourPart #KomOnsGaan #Donation