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Petaluma baseball experience inspires Uganda donations

Published: Tuesday, September 4, 2012 at 8:46 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, September 4, 2012 at 8:46 p.m.

Watching the Uganda Little League team play their newfound sport on world's biggest youth baseball stage brought tears to Kim Coleman's eyes.

“Seeing that team play in the World Series was a joy,” the Sonoma County resident said. “It made me realize how lucky we are to live here and to appreciate everything we have.”

Coleman was drawn to follow the Little League World Series because of the Petaluma National team's historic third-place finish, of course. But the African team also tugged at her heart strings as she watched them play last month in the international tournament in South Williamsport, Pa.

This year was the first time an African team qualified to play, following last year's false start when a Ugandan team won its region but was denied entry to the U.S. because of visa problems. During this year's tournament, the Lugazi team won the hearts of fans across the country as their story of determination in the face of meager means played out.

In Petaluma on Sunday, following a community parade to celebrate the local team's success, Coleman brought a bag of her family's used baseball equipment to donate to the Ugandan team.

“Those boys have hardly anything,” she said. “It's the least we can do to encourage them to keep playing.”

Her donations joined a huge mound of bats, gloves, cleats, equipment bags and more that will soon make its way from Petaluma to Uganda, thanks to local Little League baseball fans.

Healdsburg Little League donated at least five big equipment bags full of gently used catcher's helmets, bats and more, National Little League President Anthony Lackey said. The Aces travel baseball team contributed helmets and bats.

“We probably have two full-size truck beds full of gear, stacked up 4 to 5 feet tall,” he said. “It's a lot of stuff.”

And not all of it is used — about 30 percent is new, he said.

Gathering donations was easy, especially on the heels of the generosity displayed to help Petaluma team members' families travel to the East Coast for the tournament.

It's actually delivering the goods halfway across the world that's complicated.

For that, Lackey turned to Pitch in For Baseball, a nonprofit organization that has the infrastructure to consolidate and transport donations that are pouring in from across the U.S. following the World Series.

The 7-year-old group has formed partnerships with Little League Baseball and the newly formed Baseball Federation in Uganda to distribute donated equipment from its warehouse just outside Philadelphia.

Founder and Executive Director David Rhode said the group formed in 2005 to help kids in the U.S. and around the world gain access to baseball and softball, and has since made donations in more than 65 countries. It has helped Uganda leagues for the past five years.

“The team from Uganda is the perfect example of what we're all about,” he said. “We feel great pride of ownership in the Little League World Series, because we know the equipment donated was with them on the field.”

The New Castle, Ind., Little League team, which bunked with Uganda in the World Series complex, also collected donations for the team. Parents heard from their children stories that the African Little Leaguers lacked equipment and had to share gloves when they played back home.

Pitch in For Baseball's next shipment to Uganda will be the largest ever, Rhode said, and it continues to grow as offers continue to come in from Petaluma, Indiana and around the country.

In Petaluma on Sunday, another $4,000 was raised through water and hot dog sales and cash donations, Lackey said. A $5 donation to have a photograph taken with Petaluma ballplayers raised much of that.

Rhode said once his group receives donated equipment, staff check it for safety, pack it up and make sure it leaves the U.S. with proper documentation. When it arrives in Africa, it goes through customs, where it's checked again and fees are paid.

“The tricky part of international shipping is getting it where it's intended and making sure it doesn't get hijacked,” he said. “That's the role we play, logistics coordinating.”

Uganda Little League officials work to clear bureaucratic hurdles there.

Rhode said it costs at least $2,500 per pallet to ship items to Uganda.

Uganda Little League officials say they serve more than 15,000 players but have only 700 gloves. Backed by American businessman and minor league baseball team owner Richard Stanley, the league has raised $1.5million to build a six-field baseball/softball complex and a school for academics and sports.

“They have a tremendous passion for the sport,” Rhode said of the Ugandan players. “They still have a long way to go. But I don't think they have the same opportunities . We want to help.”

Petaluma's equipment will be trucked back east within a few weeks, hopefully with donated transportation costs, Lackey said.

The kids decided to raise funds for Uganda “without hesitation,” he said. “We mentioned a couple charitable organizations, and they said, ‘We'd like to do it for Uganda.' They wanted to create a little good beyond their own recognition.”

Contact Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.

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