In 2009, before a catastrophic earthquake wreaked havoc on Port-au-Prince, Artists for Peace and Justice -- a nonprofit organization -- was created, and while serving aid to the people of Haiti and providing them with shelter and medical treatment was the top priority, there was a big-picture plan at heart.
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and one where obtaining an education beyond grade school is not possible for many outside of the elite. Enrolling in high school is prestigious for Haitians, as the same percentile who go to post-secondary school in Canada and the United States are making it to high school in Haiti. It became such a grave concern that APJ sought to address the situation by providing Haitians with a free high school after the earthquake.
"We built a school that has 800 students at it right now, and without that school, they wouldn't have a chance for high school," said Bryn Mooser, country director for APJ. "As these kids go on and try for college and university and get the jobs that are going to prepare them to be the future leaders in Haiti, we know that that's a great improvement to their lives."
In addition to the high school, which is the main focus of APJ and will have an enrollment of 1,000 students by September, there has been a community outreach sports initiative, starting with baseball. Mooser and a friend of his started a Little League team, and Martha Rogers -- chair of the Rogers Foundation, a charitable organization -- also got involved after meeting Mooser through APJ.
Rogers not only made a donation to APJ -- which dedicates 100 percent of its money directly to the ground -- to help build a sports academy in Haiti, she got the Jays Care Foundation involved as well. Her sister, Lisa, and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment made contributions, too.
The Jays Care Foundation makes numerous donations across Canada to help serve underprivileged kids, and is involved in plenty of projects across the country. With the number of people in need in Canada, the Jays Care Foundation invests a lot of resources into various initiatives, and while work in other nations is not part of its mandate, an exception was made when it came to Haiti.
"These are kids that don't have anything, so the least we could do was use some of the resources that we have and provide some equipment and Blue Jays gear and make them feel great," said Danielle Bedasse, executive director of the Jays Care Foundation. "So we worked with Rawlings, who provide us baseball equipment for our programs across the country, and put together a big package of equipment -- Blue Jays hats, T-shirts -- for the kids, so they could start a baseball program. This was one small ask for a big impact in Haiti, so we were glad to do it."
As Mooser explains, the program would not have been possible without the help of Rogers and the Jays Care Foundation. For Rogers, nothing is possible without Mooser, who works with the Haitian kids daily. The two of them have a high level of respect and appreciation for one another, and coupled with the resources the Rogers and Jays Care Foundations were able to provide, it's why the APJ sports complex has been a success.
What started out as a just a community outreach initiative, has become a more formalized program. They practice three times a week, stretch at the beginning, and partake in running and throwing exercises -- the same routines that Canadian Little League teams employ. Mooser says the strides the kids have made on the diamond have been very noticeable, but they are the only Little League team in the country, so they will continue to play against each other until another one is formed. That's fine with Mooser, although he admits he would love to see his kids take on another team, because they are learning so much more than just baseball.
"When the program began, we thought we could give the kids something to do, some activities in the break time," Mooser said. "It was amazing how many social skills they were learning through sports like baseball, and they just improved so much in terms of sportsmanship -- that's something we pushed very hard on the team. Being a good sport teaches you good manners and to be kind and neighborly to your friends. It taught them a lot of team-building skills and they needed to learn more skills on how to work together.
"Sports provided a little structure in their lives that they may have been lacking. A lot of them don't have father figures. The structure of the sports, I think, made them stronger people, physically and, most importantly, mentally. Learning how to treat each other and respect each other -- those were the big improvements. It's a great way to work with those kids, get to know them and their families."
Since Mooser and others are working closely alongside the kids, it has also enabled them to monitor their health. It was through baseball that Mooser realized one of the kids was blind -- only learning after a pitch was thrown toward him -- something that could have otherwise gone unnoticed. Rogers says there is a lot that APJ does besides improve their education and teach them to become better ballplayers.
"Through sports, they are mentoring them, teaching them basic social skills that we take for granted," Rogers said. "Every kid needs an adult they can talk to. Through the Little League program, they also get a chance to eat a meal. What Bryn, APJ and everyone has done through sport is more than athletic -- it's also social education as well. Team mechanics and working together, and that it's one for all and all for one."
Rogers has been to Haiti multiple times to help provide aid and to see everything firsthand. She says that the human experience in Haiti is unlike anything she has ever experienced. For her, there is more passion and joy in Haiti, despite many living in severe poverty, than any other place she has been to, and she thanks the Jays Care Foundation for making what was a dream -- the sports component of the academy -- a reality.
"I don't know of any other organization that has gone as far as the Blue Jays," Rogers said. "It's the people like the Blue Jays, who are not only giving the donation, but also the experience, the mentoring, helping set this up, is the extraordinary part. They could have just given us some equipment and I wouldn't have thought twice about it. They just go far and beyond.
"I asked for a small amount, and the Jays Care Foundation responded with five times the amount. They gave me so much more than I could ever dream of when everyone else was turning me down. They've been involved the entire time, which is awesome. I appreciate that the Jays Care Foundation is for Canada, so helping us out is phenomenal."
Rogers says that the kids did more for her than she ever did for them, and Mooser echoed similar statements.
"Haiti is a really special country full of incredibly, beautiful, strong, resilient people," Mooser said. "So for me, it's an honor being able to work there every single day. It's an honor to have that opportunity -- I never think of it as a job because it's an incredible place.
"She [Rogers] has an incredible vision for Haiti on how to help -- tirelessly help -- in particular for Artists for Peace and Justice and the high school. She really sees sports as an incredible help to these kids. For her to be able to provide the sports to these kids and give them a sense of normalcy is a huge, huge thing that she has done, and that the Jays Care Foundation has done."
While the sports program, and the academy in general, has provided need and a better mindset for the Haitian kids, there is still work to be done. Reconstruction after the earthquake has not been easy, but Mooser is able to see some positives.
"I see the school as a shining example of what is possible," Mooser says. "I can really say that I'm proud of the reconstruction on a very personal level through the work that we've done with our organization, and I'm extremely hopeful and confident in the future of Haiti. I know that our organization's goals are aligned with the national goals of the country. You can't lose speed and momentum, and certainly not hope and optimism for the future."
As Mooser, Rogers, and countless others continue to make Haiti a better place and improve the lives of so many who are in need, Mooser can't help but dream about the future. A future that involves Haitians playing baseball and doing it at the highest of levels.
"As we start to introduce baseball to Haiti, it will be really exciting to see where that grows," Mooser said. "Hopefully we will see the next generation of players in Major League Baseball coming from Haiti."
For more information or to make a donation, please visit http://www.apjnow.org/index.html.
Chris Toman is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.