It started with baseball. In the end, it will be much more than that.
When a group of 46 people from Brookstone School boards a flight bound for the Dominican Republic early this morning, they will embark on a mission of service and discipleship.
The group, which is traveling as part of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, includes 17 players, 10 students who are not athletes, 18 family members and one coach. While there, they will build a house, provide clothing and baseball items, and lead baseball clinics for youths in the area.
It's an opportunity to give, Cougars coach Vince Massey said, but he also expects his players and the others to get plenty out of it as well.
"Everyone goes into something like this thinking they'll make a difference," he said. "Really, though, I think we'll all come back impacted in some way."
It's possible the trip never would have become a reality, however, if not for connections made in baseball.
Pitching an idea
The Brookstone baseball team faced Wesleyan twice in the state semifinals and three times during the regular season over a three-year span beginning in 2009.
At the time, Wesleyan's head coach was Mike Shaheen, who became an acquaintance of Massey's over the past few years. When Shaheen left his job at Wesleyan to become a director for the FCA in the Dominican Republic, he reached out to Brookstone in hopes that they would make the trip.
"I guess you could say we were fortunate enough to play them in back-to-back playoffs," Massey said with a laugh, noting that Wesleyan came out on top both times en route to state titles. "We developed a good relationship and played every year. He was on me about coming down there, and finally I just said 'let's do it.'"
In September of last year, Shaheen connected Massey with FCA Atlanta, which came down for a presentation about the trip. Within two weeks, more and more interested individuals began signing up for the trip.
"There were some who didn't sign up at first, but then grew more interested after seeing how many people were ready to go," Massey said.
Perhaps part of the draw was seeing how passionate Shaheen was about it, to the point that he would uproot his life at Wesleyan to move to the Dominican Republic to minister through sports.
Shaheen said, after spending time in the Dominican Republic on three mission trips, it was a call he had to answer.
"God put it on our hearts to do mission work in the Dominican and we answered His call," he said via email. "The blessing of waking up each day and discipling coaches and baseball players has been amazing."
It's a feeling Massey hopes his players can enjoy and bring back with them as well.
Living a dream
While in the Dominican Republic, the players will have opportunities to interact with children through baseball. They will lead clinics and provide equipment for individuals to use.
The country has a rich history in the sport, in part, because they don't share the same opportunities many enjoy in the United States.
"For a lot of them, that's their only dream," Massey said. "A lot of our kids dream of maybe playing ball at the next level. A lot of people there, though, that's their only goal."
Players said they thought it would be eye-opening to share a sport they loved with others from a different walk of life.
"They live baseball 24/7 down there," Brookstone player Chance Wagner said. "It's exciting to be able to share something like that."
Massey mentioned the work ethic of the players down there, and Eli Ussery said he hoped it would rub off on him.
"They want to be out there," he said. "Hopefully that will rub off on me because I love playing the game."
An international language
Of course, the point of the mission is to use baseball as an avenue for discipleship.
Lamar Weaver, FCA's area director for West-Central Georgia, said the sport is a language unto itself.
"There are just so many sports throughout the world," said Weaver, who helped reach donors and provide scholarships a handful of individuals to be able to make the trip. "Athletics are like an international language if you will."
And the 46 individuals making the trip hope they are able to use that language to speak to the people there.
"I want to see Christ moving in that part of the world," Ussery said. "We can use baseball to do that."
Two bags of baseball equipment sat in Massey's office this week, all of which will be left with the people in the Dominican when Brookstone returns home.
Massey added he and the others plan on leaving toiletries and clothes, returning with only a handful of items.
Add in the construction of a modest home for a family in need, and it's clear the group will have made an impact on their trip.
Massey said that he expects part of the impact to be within themselves, though.
"Everybody doesn't have it like we have it," he said. "I know this will be very fulfilling and will help us appreciate the things we have."
Shaheen shared similar thoughts, including a message for those interested in missions.
"A lot of Americans have no clue what goes on outside the United States or even in some parts of the States," he said. "Jesus never told us to be leaders, but He did tell us to be servants."
David Mitchell, 706-571-8571; Follow David on Twitter @leprepsports.