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Atlanta church, Texas school partner to lead baseball camps

 A church in Atlanta and a high school in Presidio, Texas, have developed a unique baseball “exchange” program that allows Hispanic youth in one of the country’s poorest counties to hone their baseball skills under some expert tutelage. Baseball camp

Each January, members of Johns Creek Baptist Church in Alpharetta, Ga., travel to the Rio Grande Valley during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend and conduct a two-day baseball camp at Presidio High, a mostly Hispanic school. The missions team includes former players from Georgia Tech University, Florida State and other baseball powerhouses, along with other church members who provide support.

 “We put on a traditional baseball camp — one day for younger athletes, one day for high-school athletes — in partnership with Presidio High School,” said Rickey Letson, minister for adults at the CBF partner church. 

The school promotes the camp and provides the baseball facilities. In addition to the instruction, each player gets a free T-shirt and baseball equipment. 

The four-year-old program has grown from about 40 kids the first year to 125 – both boys and girls – in 2012. “In Presidio, it’s whoever comes,” Letson said. “It’s wide open to any student who wants to participate.” 

It might seem odd for a baseball camp to be so popular in a football-crazy state like Texas. But since Presidio High eliminated its football program about a decade ago, it has made a name for itself as a baseball power. 

“We like to think of ourselves as a baseball community,” former Presidio coach Jose Armendariz told a local newspaper. “You see the kids and their interest even since Little League. They look up to all the kids in high school and want to play ball for Presidio High School.” 

Letson said Johns Creek Baptist got involved in Presidio because the congregation is committed to working with CBF’s Together for Hope rural poverty initiative, which ministers in the nation’s 20 poorest rural counties. Church members serve in the closest of the 20 — Perry County, Ala., 245 miles away. But they also go to the furthest one away – Presidio County, 1,380 miles from Atlanta. 

Why would Johns Creek Baptist members spend their own money and time, take a four-hour flight to El Paso, followed by a four-hour drive south to Presidio, just to play baseball with kids? 

“It gives me a chance to minister to others in a way that I feel really comfortable with,” said former college player and camp organizer David Nelms. “I feel I can contribute something valuable to these kids.” 

“I believed that I didn’t have very much to offer a ‘mission team,’ but because of the baseball aspect I was very comfortable and felt I had something to add,” said Georgia Tech Hall of Fame pitcher Todd Shiver, who has instructed pitchers on three trips so far. “I have realized how arrogant my thinking was, and that it was up to God to decide how to use me, not me.” 

In July 2010 the church and high school turned the tables, bringing 15 members of the school’s baseball team to Atlanta to participate in Georgia Tech University’s annual baseball camp. 

Johns Creek Baptist provided housing, paid the camp fees and expenses, and provided fun activities while the youth were in Atlanta – at a total cost to the church of about $5,000. The congregation will again host the Presidio team this year, and this time it will include a softball camp for girls. 

For the 2010 trip, the Atlanta Braves provided the high-schoolers with free tickets to a game and an on-field tour. And a former Braves player who is Hispanic met with the Presidio team.

 “I can’t say enough about how helpful the Atlanta Braves and others have been,” Letson said. “It’s really neat to see what people in Atlanta will do for these boys.” 

The Presidio players stayed in the homes of church members and attended Johns Creek Baptist. “Just in the natural course of spending time with them, we share our faith and why we value our time with them,” Letson said. 

“Each year, we get to share our faith more,” Scott Miles said of the trips to Presidio. “We’ve been able to keep that part of the trip important.” 

In Texas, the Together for Hope rural poverty initiative is also known as KidsHeart, a partnership led by CBF in Texas that includes CBF, Buckner International, Literacy Connexus and participating churches. Each year KidsHeart puts 2,500 volunteers to work in the Rio Grande Valley. 

“While Presidio County is technically one of the 20 poorest U.S. counties according to government reports and statistics, I never think about our work there as being assistance to the poor,” Letson said. “We are there to support a community with specific local needs, just like all communities have needs.” 

“In Presidio, I think the baseball camp meets the specific need of an isolated border community that is always looking for meaningful, productive activities for their young people,” he continued. “Oftentimes in Presidio, finding these activities means going other places. It is fun to bring a camp to Presidio, rather than the youth of Presidio once again having to travel a long distance for such an experience.”

By CBF contributing writer Greg Warner

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