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'Operation First Base' draws hundreds of children from Baton Rouge area
Wednesday, Feb 20, 2013
By Mark H. Hunter

BATON ROUGE, La. (BP)–Hundreds of Baton Rouge-area children from underserved neighborhoods heard the gospel message, learned some baseball skills and ate a nutritious lunch during Operation First Base, a community mission project of Istrouma Baptist Church.

Thirty-seven of them made decisions for Christ at Operation First Base events in January.

Held at seven local parks and at Istrouma’s two ball fields over two weekends, the children, ages 6-14, received donated baseball gloves and bats, and many also took home helmets. Several hundred volunteers from several churches and players and coaches from a half-dozen area baseball and softball teams participated, to total nearly 1,000 involved.

“We want to use the sport of baseball to present the gospel of Jesus Christ,” said M.L. Woodruff, Istrouma’s sports outreach minister and former Parkview High baseball coach. “We’re playing baseball in areas of Baton Rouge that don’t have baseball anymore. Baseball has become an elite sport, and many kids just can’t afford it.”

Because many of the parks are in high-crime areas, deputies from the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office were at each location, meeting the parents.

At each park the children were divided into age groups and then rotated around mini-camps of throwing, hitting, running and catching taught by the players.

Kelvin Mills brought his son Joshua Parker, 10, to the Howell Park session to get him interested in baseball, the dad said. When asked how this affects their relationship, Mills smiled broadly and said, “It takes us a long ways closer together.”

Richard Bentley Smith, a Baton Rouge Parks and Recreation program coordinator, said, “Our goal working with Istrouma Baptist Church is to re-introduce baseball to the inner-city kids. We want to get them off the streets and get them doing something athletic – and also fight childhood obesity and the ‘couch-potato mentality.’”

Nancy Ensminger, girls’ softball coach at Dutchtown High School and Istrouma Baptist member, brought her team “to give back to the community. Not only do these kids get a lot out of it, but my girls get a lot out of it too.”

Joseph Reed, youth minister at Glen Oaks Baptist Church, said he was glad the event was taking place in Maplewood Park, a few blocks from the church in a crime-plagued neighborhood.

“We’re praying this will make a difference to some of these kids,” Reed said.

Jeff Willis, a coach from Louisiana State University-Eunice, brought 18 of his players because, “I think it’s important for our players to share the testimony of what Christ has done in our lives,” he said.

Colin Rodgers, a 2012 Parkview Baptist School graduate and now a pitcher in the Kansas City Royals farm system, said, “I want to help teach the kids and let them hear the gospel story of Jesus Christ.”

About 90 children attended the Operation First Base event at Myhand Park in Addis, La., sponsored by First Baptist of Addis, the week before.

Former LSU Tigers and now pro-players Blake Johnson, of the Los Angeles Dodgers farm system, and Eddie Yarnall, who played several years with the Royals, teamed up with Brusly High and Port Allen High players and coaches. Johnson gave his testimony and Pastor Tom Shepard shared the gospel with the young people.
Mark H. Hunter is a regional reporter for the Baptist Message of Louisiana, where this story first appeared.

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