On a blistering Wednesday, more than 50 young baseball players sought shade under a makeshift tent at the Olivera Field in Concord. As they took turns cooling off, they eyed the rows of tables next to them, on which a mass of expensive baseball equipment lie ready for the taking. Soon, it would be theirs, thanks to the generosity of two people not much older than them.
The equipment, valued at a whopping $4,000, came courtesy of Nick Walker and Dawson Mann, two 16-year-old Monte Vista High School students who embarked on a philanthropic mission to make baseball fields a more equitable environment for underserved youth.
“We wanted to be able give back to the community, while also teaching leadership on and off the field,” Walker said. “It’s been a really good experience to go to these other places, and see how some people aren’t as fortunate and help them.”.
The two teammates, who play for the Headfirst Baseball Academy, recently launched a nonprofit arm called "Headfirst Leadership: Beyond The Field," which offers coaching to aspiring baseball players and holds equipment drives for local teams. Wednesday's giveaway, the product of a six-week long donation drive, was the first in what the two teens hope will be a recurring opportunity to level the playing field between the "haves" and "have-nots."
For low-income families, prohibitive costs loom large over extracurricular enrollment. In baseball, in particular, parents are often responsible for triple-digit enrollment fees combined with the cost of expensive equipment. It's not uncommon for parents of multiple children to spend thousands per year on sports. For families that can barely afford to pay eye-popping Bay Area rents, that expense can be hard to justify. Easing that burden, Mann and Walker said, was crucial to fostering the same love of baseball that they have had since they were small children.
“It’s expensive to play. What we really wanted to do was give to the kids who didn’t have the opportunity to play baseball,” Mann, who has been involved with the sport since he was four, said. "It also helps us realize how fortunate we are.”
It should come as no surprise to Bay Area baseball aficionados that Walker and Mann chose the Junior Giants Baseball League, a product of the San Francisco Giants Community Fund, as the recipient for their first big haul of donations. The two organizations — one behemoth, one nascent — share core philosophies, most notably making baseball more accessible and mentorship off the field.
The Junior Giants league is a free, co-ed, and non-competitive league for kids between the ages of seven and 14. All told, the league has more than 25,000 players across California, Nevada, and Arizona. And, because it had a local chapter in Concord, the boys were able to hand out the equipment themselves.
Walker and Mann, clad in maroon and yellow Headfirst shirts and matching caps, took turns picking out the correct size bat for each of the junior leaguers. Then, they showed them the correct way to swing the bat, offering words of encouragement — and taking a few steps back, for safety — as the youngers swung back and forth while flashing toothy grins.
The teens have been involved in community events for years, but they said launching a nonprofit arm within their own baseball team allowed them to combine service with sports.
“We had been volunteering and doing other sorts of community service...but we wanted to give back to the sport that we loved and find a way to sort of spread that,” explained Walker.
Ana Villabos, the commissioner of the Junior Giants Concord division, said she was taken aback by the truckload of equipment the teens had to offer and was pleasantly surprised that other items — like clothes, books, and toys — were also included in the donation.
“It’s great because it’s not just about baseball,” Villabos said. “It’s about so much more than that. It’s about helping the kids read and be healthy and have confidence. What the boys are doing, it means so much to me, and it’s going to mean to so much to the children.”
The estimated value of the donations also came as a surprise to Walker and Mann, who didn’t anticipate having quite so much community support for their project. The donation drive centers were overloaded with more than 780 items from people who heard about their Headfirst: Beyond The Field.
“People just kept bringing different sorts of things,” a proud Walker told a Concord police officer, who came by to take pictures with the teens. “Our boxes just filled up, and it all just went from there.”
It felt, to use baseball parlance, like a home run.
“We definitely don’t want this to be it,” Walker said. “We want to expand and continue working, and hopefully inspire other people to do the same.”