Erik Hegeman has spent much of his life lacing up cleats and sliding on groomed ground into the white canvas-covered bases.
In Nicaragua, Hegeman and his Pinecrest Academy classmates played the game he loves in sneakers on a dirt road with a rock, stick and bases fashioned out of a cardboard box.
The children in the two villages did have some new bats, baseballs and other equipment, thanks to Hegeman’s organization Mitts for Kids. They also had a group of Americans to teach them the game and play ball.
For the sixth year, Pinecrest seniors spent their last week as students on an eye-opening trip in late May.
As their tradition has it, the 28 girls and boys split up and took on different projects.
Hegeman added his personal effort to the mix in bringing Mitts for Kids internationally.
He launched the organization in 2007 after his travel baseball team faced an opponent that had no uniforms and only one bat.
“I was in awe that they didn’t have the same equipment I had or my team had,” he said, “and they kicked our butts so bad.”
His love of the game kept the donation-based effort going for years, and Hegeman said bringing the equipment to underprivileged kids in Nicaragua “was important to me.”
He distributed 100 pounds of equipment, which he spent about two years collecting.
The experience was one he’ll never forget as he moves on to West Point Military Academy.
“I definitely took home how fortunate I am, but even the happiness they have in their situation,” Hegeman said. “None of the people I met were complaining about what they were living through. They were all just happy to be alive, happy for our help.”
His classmates found similar experiences in their humanitarian mission work.
The young men spent most of their time building a rectory, a home for a priest who could then serve 40 surrounding villages.
Ben Frain said the two-and-a-half days of labor under the hot temperatures might have been the hardest physical work he’s done.
“You don’t really see how much you have until you are actually doing what they do,” Frain said.
“It really hits you when you come back to America with all the stuff we have, and you realize they’re still down there living their same lives.”
He said the most memorable experience for him was gathering recyclable materials from a garbage dump to give to families to sell for the money they need to live.
The senior girls tackled several projects, including spending time at an orphanage and putting on a carnival for the children who depend on proceeds from the dump.
Lizzie Brenner said she didn’t know how to prepare mentally for the trip, but never would have imagined she and her classmates would connect so quickly with the orphan girls.
“We were all really touched by them,” Brenner said. “They’ve never had role models or parents other than their teachers. They just have a need to be held.”
She said the young women of Pinecrest were in tears when they had to leave the girls. The experience with the orphans reminded her of the importance of family and to appreciate life.
“They really don’t have any material possessions or family to rely on,” Brenner said. “It’s a huge eye opener as to what I have.”
This was the third year that the Pinecrest senior class traveled to Chinendega, Nicaragua, so the girls had visited the same orphanage as the class before them.
They also continued the work of the previous boys’ class by painting a schoolhouse they had built.
The Pinecrest tradition of capping off the senior year with the mission trip is something the students look forward to for years.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better way to end it,” Brenner said. “Going through something like that with your class, you can’t really get that any other way.”
Jacob Carr said sharing the experience bonded them more tightly.
“It was definitely the pinnacle of our time together,” he said, adding that the feeling was bittersweet. “You get really close to those guys on that trip, and then three days later we had graduation.”