The Home Team
Words & Photos by: Eric Morales
Making a difference in someone’s life can be as simple as stopping to ask how things are going and then truly listening. At the end of the day, most of us just want to know that there are people we can depend on should we need them. At some point or another, everyone needs someone.
“It’s all about the kids and developing these young boys and girls and giving them the tools to be successful.”
RBI Austin is so much more than baseball; it is working to help kids here get through their youth and adolescence knowing they always have a large support group to get them to a place where they are self-sustainable and able to thrive.
Christopher Sanders is one of those youth. He is still a minor, but he has already set foot on a major league baseball field and enjoyed a game of baseball. Sanders will, for the rest of his life, be able to cherish this moment. But, the real magic is that through RBI Austin, he feels he has built lasting friendships and a new extended “family.”
The baseball experiences can be positively overwhelming. “Just to tell your baby, ‘Your dreams came true!’” smiles Shelley Sanders, Chris’s mother, as she reflects on the reality that RBI Austin has helped create for her son. She adds that it has nothing to do with winning or losing at that point, but it is more about the experiences. “That’s something I would have never been able to provide. He had the opportunity to venture out and look.”
Nothing this grand, in terms of baseball or community, was expected. “It was just some kids from the neighborhood. We started thinking we were just going to play summer baseball, and it turned into so much more.” It seems other families also feel they got involved in something that would have a greater effect on their lives than they could have possibly imagined.
Dennis Reyes, now a coach with RBI Austin, tells his experience when his son, Jacob Ramirez, started with the league that is more than just a league. “What I realized very quickly,” Reyes explains, “was that they weren’t interested in Jacob just as a baseball player. They were interested in him as a human and in developing him as a person in society in addition to helping him get there.”
Reyes, a city employee with an odd work schedule, tells of how RBI Austin coaches would drive out to Dale, Texas, to pick up Jacob for a practice or for a game when he was unavailable to make the drive himself. Reyes realizes that the people involved with RBI Austin work overtime to ensure the kids are able to stay involved. Not only that, but in the off-season, the coaches are still a part of Jacob’s life. “It’s all about the kids,” Reyes affirms. “And developing these young boys and girls and giving them the tools to be successful. They don’t just forget about you when the baseball season is done—they’re there.”
Sanders and Reyes are two families who have been with RBI Austin since near the beginning and have been able to experience the benefits of what is possible within the community they are building together.
Community and friendships are emphasized. Everyone is considered family. It’s clear to hear that as they talk about one another. In fact, the only time the sport of baseball was brought up was when the interviewees were explaining what the RBI World Series is. The underlying theme heard again and again is how the people involved in RBI Austin work as a team to create community and guide these young men and women. The game of baseball is simply a reason for everyone to come together.
“They’re mentors. They are for life,” Reyes adds. “I saw Jacob grow tremendously in the few years he was involved. Our youngest one, [Laure Reyes], is also involved with it right now. It’s a family affair and a family atmosphere.”
RBI Austin is volunteer-based, and the volunteers are both from the east side and from all over Austin. RBI Austin hopes to create or simply reinforce the positive guidance young people need in their lives by building these strong bonds.
Reyes now volunteers and is a coach, giving back and helping other children the way RBI Austin has helped his kids. “It’s not just about numbers, wins and losses. They truly care about you, and they’ve not shown me anything different. So, I dedicate my time and energy to RBI. They’ve been nothing but good to us. Why would you not want to be associated with something that’s helping you and the community?”
How, specifically, is RBI going beyond the baseball field to make a difference? Matt Price, a founder of RBI Austin explains, “The hub of the whole program is mentors. Mentoring is at the core.” Price prays for a movement in the Austin culture, for Austinites to take ownership of their town and work together to bring stability into the lives of those who need it by becoming mentors.
The kids share experiences from their perspectives. Christopher Sanders, the young man who played on a major league field, recalls the feelings he had when he first became involved with RBI and realized that the coaches were actually mentors who were reaching out. “In the beginning, I was like, I don’t know this guy. Not sure if I want to let him into my personal life.” Sanders explains that as the season went on, he grew closer with his coaches. “Most of the coaches are my friends. I consider them family.”
Jacob Ramirez, a former RBI player and Laure Reyes’ older brother, recalls that his positive feelings were instant. “Joining RBI was refreshing. It was great to be part of an organization that wasn’t just league play. They want to be more than just your coach. They want to be your friend, your mentor.” Four years after Ramirez’s RBI Austin career, he still keeps in touch with Matt Price. Ramirez plans to become a mentor himself once he completes his apprenticeship as an electrician, and his schedule improves.
How did RBI Austin begin? Matt Price originally became involved with summer league coaching through a Reagan High School. teacher friend and wanted to give east Austin kids the opportunity to play during the summers. It did not take long before Price felt called to serve a higher purpose. “Getting to know some of the players in 2009,” recalls Price, “let me know that even though there was a need in the baseball arena, there was a bigger need in their lives, in their character as young men. We saw a need for mentorship, a need for guidance.” According to Price, 73% of the kids at Oak Springs Elementary alone are fatherless. “… a lot of stats out there that talk about fatherless youth, from incarceration to high school dropouts, teen pregnancies. When you grow up in a family without a father, the chances are greater for going down one of those paths. It’s the kind of situation where kids are often set up for failure.”
So RBI Austin sets out to go beyond the baseball field to create a family and faith-based environment for everyone and teaches kids and parents about a lot more than baseball. Everyone feels like family, and the support is there for everyone. RBI Austin was small when Sanders and Reyes got their kids involved. Now, RBI Austin has around 250 active volunteers and 584 kids enrolled in the program. That’s quite the large family.
RBI Austin has initiated a Mentor Match program wherein a mentor is matched with a child in 4th grade, and the mentor stays with that kid until they graduate high school. If anyone is interested in becoming involved, a mentor is required to meet with a child only twice a month, whether at school or on a weekend for an hour or two. A few hours a month may not seem like enough, but mentors and coaches work to make themselves available for kids and families on and off the baseball field at all times. Building the long-term consistency is where RBI Austin hopes to make the largest impact. “We have 50 long-term mentors, and our goal is to get 50 new mentors a year,” says Price.
Ultimately, there is no article, no story that comes too close to capturing the feeling of what these children and families are experiencing. If you love baseball and want to be part of a large family, check out RBI Austin. RBI Austin is faith-based, and in addition to mentoring, incorporates Bible study for youth who wish to participate. Kids can play ball, and adults can be part of the village that it takes to raise a child. It does not matter where you come from. Everyone is welcome.
Jr. RBI: Boys ages 4-12 & Girls ages 4-14
T-Ball: Ages 4-6 (boys and girls)
Coach Pitch: Ages 7-8 (boys and girls)
Baseball: Ages 9-12 (boys)
Softball: Ages 9-14 (girls)
1 practice per week on weeknights (varies by team), 1–2 games per week
Cost is $10 per player (from Austin ISD schools). Cost for players from other schools is $100. Applicants may apply for the $10 rate; scholarship applications available. Registration opens April 1.
RBI: Boys ages 13-18
Junior Division: Ages 13-15 (boys)
Senior Division: Ages 16-18 (boys)
Most games and practices on weeknights
3-4 days per week (between games & practices)
Cost is $50 per player (from RBI Austin schools). Cost for players from other schools is $150. Scholarship applications are available upon request.