Shaffer: Dominican Republic throws curve at family’s charity

jshaffer@newsobserver.comJune 10, 2012 

The collection of bats, balls and mitts gathered in Raleigh and held up by customs officials in Santo Domingo.

COURTESY OF RENEE WARD

— Somewhere in the Dominican Republic, locked in some government warehouse, a lonely stash of baseball equipment sits waiting for young sluggers’ hands – 162 bats, 78 mitts and 282 balls shipped with love from Raleigh.

This bundle of generosity was bound for Cabarete, a beach town in the province of Puerto Plata, gathered from churches, sporting good stores, Millbrook High School and the YMCA.

But as soon as it hit the Caribbean island, customs officials seized it, demanding $3,000 in import fees and storage charges, holding a box of used baseballs as an international hostage.

There they sit, going unused in the country that produced Sammy Sosa, David Ortiz and more than 10 percent of the players on all Major League rosters – a country with more than a third of its population in poverty.

“It’s just so heart-breaking,” said Renee Ward, whose family organized the equipment drive. “We flew down there to meet it and hand it all out to people, but it never came.”

The snafu started last fall when Ward, her husband, Joe, and three sons, Joseph, Chandler and Anderson, decided to nix their Christmas presents for an offbeat family vacation.

They wanted someplace warm, which sent them hunting for an island, but also someplace natural, where they wouldn’t be walled off inside an all-expenses-paid resort. Renee wanted to mingle with different people, preferably poor people, and let her boys see the reality of living in a Third World country.

So they chose the Dominican Republic and hooked up with Iguana Mama Adventure Tours, which offers horseback rides, zip-line tours, waterfall exploring and snorkeling trips. More important to Renee, she could also arrange to play baseball with locals kids, who sometimes play on the beaches with tree fruit and sticks.

One of her boys got the idea of packing baseballs in their suitcases, and the idea grew. Soon, they had set up their own charity called Diamond to Dominican, seeking used bats and balls.

They scoured the Triangle for every idle Louisville Slugger, setting up collection bins, hitting up college teams, sorting all the loot in their garage. Sometimes, they scored brand-new bats and shiny white balls.

“My youngest son said, ‘We need to rub a little dirt on it so no one argues about who gets new and who gets used,’ ” Ward said.

By the time they’d finished gathering loot, it weighed 375 pounds. A friend in Durham arranged to get it sent by truck to Miami, where it mistakenly got abandoned on a dock, then shipped on to Santo Domingo, the capital.

But when the Wards arrived in April, the shipment was AWOL. Locals told them, embarrassed, that they had seen charity disappear many times thanks to short-sighted bureaucracy. The government offered no explanation. Ward only learned about the demand for fees once she had returned to Raleigh.

In the meantime, she has written to the Dominican consulate, explaining that the experience has soured her on the idea of helping any further. No response thus far, to the family’s dismay.

But Renee keeps one memory of her three sons, playing ball on the beach with a few Dominican kids who were walking by, then running up to their hotel room to grab a few of the stray bats they had packed in their suitcases. When they had finished, the local boys were astonished that they got to keep the bats.

I like to imagine them getting passed around Cabarete, from one batter to the next, smacking singles into overgrown outfields until it’s too dark to play.

Shaffer: (919) 829-4818

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