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Camp Seeks To Bring America's Favorite Pastime To D.C. Kids

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Home Run Baseball Camp campers and staff gather in Northwest D.C. This summer, the camp celebrates it's 20th year at the Friendship Playground site.
Heather Taylor
Home Run Baseball Camp campers and staff gather in Northwest D.C. This summer, the camp celebrates it's 20th year at the Friendship Playground site.

In front of blue and white bleacher stands at the well-tended baseball field at Friendship Playground in northwest D.C., coach Dan Thorner stands in front of pint-sized campers, and begins the day with a brief pep talk.

This is Home Run Baseball Camp, a kind of baseball lover's paradise for kids with a very simple mission: to provide a safe, fun and nurturing environment, where 4 to 12-year-olds can learn baseball skills. This summer, the camp is celebrating its 20th anniversary at Friendship Playground, but now, founder John McCarthy is looking to expand.

He thinks camps like this should be available to any kid who wants to attend, not just those who can afford it. And that's why he's developed a camp program with Savoy Elementary in southeast D.C.

It's part of the Building Bridges Through Baseball, a program that welcomes 20 to 30 youngsters from Wards 7 and 8, who may not have a chance to go to good baseball camps. The camp has a literacy component, too, with campers spending a portion of the day reading.

"You can see campers grow on the baseball field, bond with our coaches and bond with each other," McCarthy says.

The Building Bridges Through Baseball program is a partnership that includes George Washington University, the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation and Mayor Vincent Gray's office.

McCarthy thinks there's an important reason why programs like Building Bridges are so beneficial.

"In order to move society forward, we all have to find a way to reach out and create common ground," he says. "And the easiest people to do that with is children, through sports and education and schools."

McCarthy says he was inspired by early experiences.

"My father was a writer about social justice, Colman McCarthy, and so I was exposed to my father writing about people considered to be 'on the margins of society.' We met a lot of heroic people. My dad would say these people are trying to change society through their personal force and service. And that experience made a big impact on me.

He says focusing on baseball helps people understand that they are part of a bigger picture — that they must work together as a team. He also says baseball is a welcoming sport because there are opportunities for kids with various backgrounds and skill levels to contribute. But the Home Run Baseball Camp founder admits that achieving a successful program poses key challenges.

"A youngster can come as a camper, but some of the issues in their life come with them... childhood hunger issues, low literacy levels, high frustration. And sometimes campers that come are not always used to somebody saying, ' How are you feeling? Are you okay? Tell me what happened.' That's when it's important to help them learn to develop the tools to help process that."

McCarthy attributes the program's success to staff members like Cameron Windham, now a rising senior at Amherst College and pitcher for his college baseball team. In selecting someone to lead the Savoy program, he chose a kindred spirit.

"Cameron Windham has a high degree of social consciousness," he says. "It's very unusual in a college student, to be aware of his community and how he can help solve problems."

Like McCarthy, that trait runs in the family. Windham credits his father, a college professor.

"My dad has always been a very socially conscious person," says Windham. "He always encourages my sister and me to help out the community."

Key to Windham's job at the camp was to help kids become comfortable with new people and new surroundings. He performs a similar role when he mentors kids in underserved areas in Washington and in Massachusetts.

"My role was just a matter of trying to gain trust," says Windham. "It's really rewarding, especially when you clarify something, that helps them develop. You sort of see it before your eyes. It's exciting."

As he looks ahead, McCarthy says he'd like the city to challenge other camps to develop similar programs.

"I would hope that if Jackie Robinson or Sargent Shriver came to my camp, they would say, 'I like that program.' And they'd ask me some critical questions about it — how can we make it better?"

[Music: "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" by Alan Pasqua from Twin Bill]

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