Baseball isn’t huge in South Africa, just as it isn’t in many countries.
Miles October has found, however, that when given the opportunity to play, children embrace it, and in 2015 and 2016, Roslyn native and minor league player Matt Soren helped October coach them with his organization Play Sport4Life.
The experience has stayed with Soren even as he’s returned to the United States to coach and play, and now he’s found a way to enlist his community on Long Island to support children like those he met abroad: an equipment drive.
Play Sport4Life offers children from low-income households the opportunity to play with real bats, gloves and balls, equipment which is otherwise financially out of reach for them, October said. An expanded supply means some can have gloves and bats of their own, he said.
“We have so much in Long Island and in the New York metro area, where these kids are leaving $200 bats and gloves at the field and they just forget about it,” Soren said. “I want to be able to give these kids I saw that need these things … a chance and to be able to connect two vastly different places.”
Soren is currently coaching a youth travel team he started with Zach Goldstein, an assistant coach at Adelphi University, and together they have been gathering equipment, mostly used, from people and communities on Long Island.
Goldstein has used the team’s social media pages to make calls for donations.
“I’ve gotten a bunch of equipment from direct messages,” he said. “I’ll pick it up. I’ll drive to the house and bring it up to Glen Cove and just add to the collection.”
So far, they’ve filled about a third of a shipping container, Soren said. Port Washington Youth Activities has donated a significant collection.
“It’s all about paying it forward, and we’ll pay it forward to whoever needs it,” Port Washington Youth Activities Executive Director Brandon Kurz said.
South Africa was the second international destination for Soren during an offseason.
He was hopping around minor league teams after college and in the winter of 2014 traveled all the way to Australia to play and coach.
That was the year that October returned to South Africa after spending over a decade in Angola. He decided to resurrect the team he used to play for in South Africa, the Maitland Giants, and recruited Soren to join during another one of his winter offseasons.
October was simultaneously in his second year implementing Play Sport4Life, and brought Soren in to assist.
The nonprofit was organizing athletic activities for schools and youth sports leagues built on the belief that athletics has the power to shape an individual’s whole life for the better.
Participants were falling in love with baseball, and playing the sport on the same streets that would echo with gunshots at night, October said.
“They’re just looking for any way out,” Soren said of the children he worked with. “When they see someone make it into soccer or rugby or whatever, it gives them a hope – ‘Oh, I can make it out if I work hard, if I listen, if I’m diligent.’”
Just two months ago, two program participants Soren trained starting when they were 12 made it onto South Africa’s under-18 national team.
“That was something that really hit me hard because these were the kids … who were always the first ones there, the last ones to leave,” he said.
The equipment drive is an initial effort to continue working with Play Sport4Life, Soren said.
He recently returned from Israel, where he gained citizenship to play for the country in its Olympic qualifiers. Now that he and Goldstein have started a youth team on the North Shore, Goldstein will start another on the South Shore next fall.
But South Africa feels like a second home, Soren said. He lived there for nearly 10 months total and once his playing career starts to settle down he hopes to devote more energy to helping out with Play Sport4Life, he said.
One day, he’d love to bring a group of young South Africans to play in the United States.
October said he hopes to eventually send players off to play at the college level in the U.S., a gateway to the pros.
This equipment drive is a heartwarming representation of how people across the world can help each other, he said.
“I’ve always told the guys I’m extremely proud of the role that they’ve played and how their time in South Africa has impacted on them,” he said. “They didn’t know a lot when they came out here, but I do believe that their time here and the impact that the kids have had on them has helped them to become the people that they are.”