If someone in your household plays youth baseball or softball, there’s probably a new bat in the family this season — and an old bat that’s not much use anymore.
La Cañada Baseball and Softball Association has joined leagues across the country in adopting more stringent safety regulations for bats, which means the olds bats are out and in need of a new home.
How about Nicaragua?
LCBSA is partnering with a charity called Helping Kids Round First to collect all types of baseball and softball equipment. Used gloves, cleats, helmets or, yes, bats, can be donated on March 10 at Picture Day (or any other time at a bin set up at the Union 76 gas station, located at 1540 Foothill Blvd.).
Helping Kids Round First is a nonprofit that has been dedicated since 2007 to improving lives in rural Nicaragua, in part, through baseball and softball.
Mark Miller has imported the organization to La Cañada Flintridge from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He spent several years commuting between LCF and South Dakota, where he ran Sullivan’s, the home decor company he’d purchased in 2014.
“Sioux Falls has an unbelievable culture,” Miller said. “They believe in three things — faith, family and friends. I remember I was sitting in the office the first week and at 5 p.m., everybody’s leaving. I thought, ‘What?’ So my vice president came up and explained, ‘Mark, we don’t live to work, we work to live.’
“I go, ‘This is so healthy! I can’t believe it’s real.’ And I learned to stop chasing, and let it come to you, enjoy your time and find time to help other people.”
Miller also learned about Helping Kids Round First, the nonprofit founded by Craig Severtson, a local cattle rancher and former amateur baseball player with whom Miller clicked immediately, despite seemingly not having much in common, politically or professionally.
“I’ll never forget that breakfast,” said Miller, who vividly recalls being introduced to Severtson by the son of the woman whose company he’d purchased. “Marian Sullivan’s son introduced us and said, ‘I thought you two guys should know each other,’ and he was right. I didn’t know this guy and within 10 minutes, I was like, ‘OK, I’ll help you.’ I think South Dakota had something to do with it, and I think he had a lot do with it.”
Utterly dedicated, Severtson has grown Helping Kids Round First into an organization that donates and delivers equipment to impoverished youth in Nicaragua, in addition to launching a baseball and softball academy, which has produced at least one Major League prospect so far. The Boston Red Sox signed left-handed pitcher Nixson Munoz last August.
“Without our support, that doesn’t happen,” Severtson said last week by phone from Nicaragua, to which he makes monthly trips. “That’s so relevant because he provides hope for a lot of young kids. Baseball is more hope than anything there, it keeps kids off the street and off drugs. Softball, too.”
The organization has branched out beyond the beisbol. It’s helped finance new sustainable agricultural and irrigation projects and has provided a variety of health equipment to local hospitals. It even sponsors a daycare that allows women to work.
But it all started — and starts, Miller stresses — with bats.
“Craig has a tendency to want to go in every direction,” said Miller, who is a member of the nonprofit’s board. “And my point to him was, ‘Hey, Helping Kids Round First is baseball and softball first, anything else that comes out of that is great.”
Miller envisions growing the program incrementally and substantially, with plans to expand it throughout the West Coast.
“I want to start at local levels, and then hopefully I can go to community colleges and I can develop it there,” Miller said. “And I have this crazy vision that some night at Dodger Stadium it will be a Helping Kids Round First baseball night, where at every turnstile is a donation bin.
“And,” he continued, “if Nicaragua becomes oversaturated with baseball equipment, we’ll go to another country — but I don’t think that’s ever going to happen.”
Severtson said he appreciates all the assistance he’s received from the Southern California businessman with the big heart.
“I spearheaded this, but there are hundreds of people who make it happen,” Severtson said. “And Mark’s been one of the principal ones, both financially and in many other ways.”
Beside his enthusiasm, fundraising acumen and business marketing savvy, Miller also offered a shipping relationship that helped out the organization, he said.
“Craig was paying $8,000 to get a container to Nicaragua,” Miller said. “And because [Sullivan’s] shipped so much stuff from China to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, I introduced him to our freight forwarder, and he reduced that from $8,000 to $4,000.”
LCBSA President George Chumo found Miller’s proposal made a lot of sense for his league, too. The initial equipment drive, which occurred during January tryouts, was promoted with only a single email and produced several carloads of equipment, Miller said.
“Mr. Miller really snuck up on us,” Chumo said. “It was almost like serendipity how he approached us in this quandary we had [with the new bat guidelines]. It fit in perfectly with our situation. And I think it’s great, because we have so much in this community, and it’s great to send it down there to kids who don’t have as much.
“When I started to see catchers equipment and batting nets and cleats and batting helmets all piling up, it really warmed my heart.”