A line of children was forming around home plate on a little league diamond in Walnut Creek, just outside Austin, Texas. CTX Ability Sports was holding their first ever Legends for Youth Baseball Clinic, specifically catered for children with disabilities and their siblings. The kids had various disabilities. Some were in wheelchairs with their brother/sister behind them to help push, others with down syndrome and other learning disabilities. They were all there to run the bases. It was 60 feet to first base but it really just looked like freedom. Professional baseball players had come from the neighboring cities in uniform to cheer the kids on as they ran the bases one by one.
The kids didn’t have to hit a ball, nobody was keeping score. This was their moment. They stood at home plate waiting for the coach to yell Go! And they took off sprinting to first and second…and home.
There’s this small boy waiting in line to run the bases, not so much small as undersized. The boy was wearing a hat twice the size of his head, like an ant carrying a walnut. Under the ball cap were fresh scars, over 40 stitches, forming a hexagon shape across the top of his shiny scalp. His name is DJ Mojica. DJ takes off his helmet and subconsciously runs his tiny fingers along the grooves formed by the staples holding his fragile cranium together. DJ looks up and fixes his gaze on first base. He’s next in line. He digs in on the batters box just like the big leaguers do it. GO!
Hundreds of family and friends lining the bases cheered.
On May 29, 2011, DJ was taken to the ER for the first time. He was only 17 months old at the time. He’d been vomiting for days. Lots of swabs and blood tests revealed nothing. Frustration was beginning to set in. The doctor persisted, “I want to do a CT of his brain to rule anything further out.” Ashlei was pregnant with her second child Jaxen, so she couldn’t go in with DJ during the CT scan, but her husband Rocky went. The scan was fast. The doctor came out and told Ashlei, “Mrs. Mojica, your son has intercranial bleeding. He is being intubated now and is having emergency brain surgery.” Ashlei was confused and taken aback. She protested, “I’m sorry, but you have the wrong child. You can’t know that. We just left the scan room.” The doctor looked her straight in the eye and repeated himself. “Mrs. Mojica, your son’s brain is bleeding. They are placing a breathing tube. He will be having emergency brain surgery right now.”
And the world fell apart around them. DJ was rushed into surgery. The neurosurgeon removed a malignant tumor that took up 1/4 of DJ’s brain cavity. Two surgeries, 6 rounds of radiation, and 3 stem cell transplants later, DJ was cancer free. It’s the kind of physical battering that would kill most children. But he had fought through it and come out the other side clean.
Until two years later in November 2013, when the cancer returned. DJ had his 4th brain surgery just before his 4th birthday. He would have his 5th surgery again in February of this year when cancer was detected in the scar tissue.
And that is the Reader’s Digest version of how a 4 year-old kid weighing 30 lbs. beat cancer 3 times.
DJ loves two things: The Incredible Hulk and Ranger’s baseball. When I met DJ for the first time I asked him what he wanted more than anything else – insurance had covered all his medical bills. DJ thought for a moment and meekly whispered in my ear, “I want to play baseball.”
Twenty miles from Walnut Creek, 50 year-old John Lorek drives his old Dodge Intrepid by an empty plot of land a few blocks from his home in the small town of Hutto, Texas. John’s son, Ryne, has cerebral palsy. John had been driving past the empty plot for 3 years with an idea. The empty lot was rough, the topsoil only an inch deep – a dusty coverlet above a hard rock strata. John decided it was the best plot of land in Texas. You see, the small township had no facility for special needs children yet there were hundreds of disabled children in the area. The town simply didn’t have the money to pay for the kind of field that would be needed. But there was this plot of land. And John drove past it every day.
Reverend David McLain is a jovial young Pastor at the Bridge Church in Hutto. He’s well respected in the area, despite his love for the Oklahoma Sooners. The Church had purchased 70 acres near the water tower in Hutto. David’s phone rang one morning and there was an energetic voice on the other end of the line. It was John Lorek. John started telling they pastor all about how a baseball diamond would change so many young lives in the area, and he had been driving by this plot of land. David cut him off, “John, we don’t have much money, but I understand the importance of sports. You can have the plot of land.”
Just like that, there was hope. But there was no money. John was determined to get the field built even if he had to go door to door collecting $5 at a time. There were bake sales and golf tournaments; and he’d applied for over 200 grants from other non-profits, declined by all except for Smiles for Sammy. Over the years John had managed to cobble together $10,000. A noble effort, but a special-needs baseball diamond isn’t cheap. They needed expertise in that field, so to speak. John needed something big.
Cal Ripken, Sr. is a legend in baseball history. He worked with the Baltimore Orioles as a player, scout, manager, and coach throughout an impressive 37-year career. After he passed away in 1999, his sons wanted to create an organization that would carry on the memory of their father. Cal Sr. had used baseball as a platform to teach his boys about leadership, work ethic, responsibility, and healthy living. The Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation was founded by Cal Ripken, Jr. and Bill Ripken in 2001 with those very principles in mind. The Foundation uses baseball as the bridge to reach at-risk and special needs youth.
The Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation doesn’t usually build fields in suburbia. Kevin Bingham, COO of the Ripken Foundation told me, “We won’t build fields in wealthy, suburban areas. We build fields where the need is greatest. Kids in the impoverished pockets of towns and cities deserve a chance to play our national pastime same as everybody else. So do kids with disabilities. Kevin smiled, “Oh, and we usually make the outfield fence only about 100 feet out. Because we think these kids should know what it’s like to hit one out of the ballpark.”
The Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation now impacts nearly one million children in 250 cities every year through baseball. Nobody knows how to build a field better than these guys. Just one last big piece: the money.
I sat at our local bar one evening with Brian Mercedes. He’s my brother-in-law and the executive director of Chive Charities. His father is from the Dominican Republic. Brian moved to the Dominican Republic in 2005 to volunteer and worked on the island for four years until 2009. In the impoverished parts of the DR (which is most of it), they say that the only way you’ll ever leave the island is if you go pro in baseball. The island has produced many MLB players including David Ortiz and Sammy Sosa.
The cost of the field would exceed $250,000 to do it right. Can we do this? Brian thought about it. “We have a chance here to change so many lives, not just DJ’s. It would be such a great thing for the community. We should go big with this – $200,000 and ask the Chivers to drive home the remaining $50,000. And so it goes…”
When we gave John the news he broke down. His search was over. We didn’t really want the credit for building the field – the Chivers don’t care about those things. But John insisted it be called KCCO Ability Field and he had his serious face on, so we agreed.
There’s more of this amazing story in the photos below, and you can donate RIGHT HERE!
UPDATE #1: We hit $15,000 the first time I refreshed the page. Here we go!
UPDATE #2: $20,000
UPDATE #3: $30,000!!!
UPDATE #4: $45,000 in less than an hour and donations coming in even faster now. If you’re new to theCHIVE and unfamiliar with what happens once the goal is hit, watch this…
UPDATE #5:$50,000 in just over an hour!!!
UPDATE #6: $65,000 five minutes after we hit the 50k goal.
UPDATE #7: $70,000
UPDATE #8: $80,000!!!
UPDATE #9: $90,000
UPDATE #10: $100,000 in less than 3 hours. Holy smokes!!!
UPDATE #11: We just blew by $120,000!!
UPDATE #12: $130,000 and no sign up stopping even at this late hour.
UPDATE #12: $140,000!!!
UPDATE #13: $150,000!!!!!!!!
The package had been sitting at my house for a week. Jim Carrey and his ten gallon hat were guarding it. Bill Murray and his brothers Joel and John had helped me get it. It was a very special gift for a boy who loved baseball. We’ll get back to that package soon enough.
We attended Legends for Youth Baseball Clinic to meet some of the kids we’d be helping and to present a check to begin construction on KCCO Ability Field about 20 miles down the road.
Jessie and my sister, Emily (theBERRY) with my nephew, Ryland.
Brian Mercedes, Executive Director of Chive Charities.
DJ’s turn to run!
After he rounded 2nd base, DJ faultered a bit. His mother Ashlei helped him round 3rd.
While the kids ran, we got a special surprise for DJ ready.
Mickey Mantle, “The Mick,” one of the most revered baseball players in the history of the game. The son of a lead miner in Oklahoma, Mickey was a humble person. He never quite understood his fame, or why he was treated differently than anybody else. But the NY Yankee outfielder once hit a baseball over the right field roof at Tiger Stadium in Detroit – a hit that baseball historian Mark Gallagher estimated traveled 643 feet. To this day, nobody has ever hit more World Series home runs (18).
This was the package Jim Carrey was guarding: an autographed poster of Mickey Mantle.
…and now it belongs to DJ.
DJ ran his fingers along Mantle’s autograph, “I’m going to put this in my room!”
Pastor David McLain, one of of the funniest and most compassionate guys I’ve met. Thanks for the land.
My brother Leo and I had always talked about building a little league diamond for kids. For us, this day was a dream come true.
We always wanted to write a Big Check. You know, those ceremonial checks you can’t cash but look really cool?
This is Angie Cone. Everyday Angie collaborates with our recipients on every detail of their journey.
The plot of land in Hutto, Texas.
KCCO Ability Field will be a state-of-the-art, synthetic-turf, adaptive use field specifically designed for all children with disabilities to enjoy. The Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation works with contractors who specialize in constructing fields using the highest quality materials. The field is proportionally smaller than standard baseball fields, making the game easier to play for children with special needs. The synthetic-turf allows for children in wheelchairs to participate and is soft in case a child falls.
Chive Charities has donated $200,000 from the Chive Fund. The $50,000 goal on GoFundMe is what we need to get this project started. But the Chivers have built a reputation of ignoring goals. We are constantly humbled by your eagerness to give beyond what is asked. You consistently teach us that any goal we ask of you, you will gleefully knock it out of the park. So, in case you are wondering where the funds will go if that happens this time, there are many things we would like to do that simply exceed the scope of our budget. Here is what any additional funds raised beyond the goal will go toward:
• ADA Bathrooms so that special needs children and their families don’t have to travel hundreds of yards to use bathrooms inside Bridge Community Church.
• A family ADA playground next to the field.
• Continual maintenance of the field.
• Equipment storage units.
• Shaded awnings for resting areas.
• Perhaps the coolest thing of all, if enough funds are raised, we are going to get an interactive video scoreboard. The guys at the Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation tell us that the kids LOVE seeing their faces up on the scoreboard. Words can’t describe the feeling of excitement and empowerment the kids experience when they see themselves lit up on a scoreboard, as well as the cherished memories from their families.
The groundbreaking ceremony begins. That’s John Lorek in the green Keep Calm with his son, Ryne.
KCCO Ability field is due to be completed in late August!
DJ wanted to attend the groundbreaking for the new field, but he had a terrible reaction to his last round of chemo. The rash had ripped through his fragile body, DJ’s depleted immune system helpless to stop it.
But there’s something about the resilience of this kid. DJ wanted to see this field. So we returned to Hutto so DJ could see the proposed field on which he hoped to play someday.
It was raining – DJ didn’t care. He was finally feeling better and wanted to play catch.
Last night I sat around wondering if we do this too much now… My brother and I struggle with our own limitations everyday. Here’s a good example: For days, we debated whether or not it would be a great idea if Chivers who donated $500 or more would be invited to Opening Day and a huge private party afterwards. The strategy would work, we concluded. And it would raise the funds. And it’s dumber’n a sack full of hammers. Parlor tricks like that are what big charities do to create a kind of charitable heiarchy where everybody can get together and feel really self-satisfied about what they’ve accomplished. It’s not what we do here.
The thing is, this flash charity model doesn’t rely on Chivers giving $100. Instead, it revolves around theCHIVERS who give $5 and $10. To a rich man, $100 is $100. To your average bloke, $10 is lunch. Why is one more important than the other? The internet is really the great equalizer in that way.
So, regardless of whether you donate $1, $5, or $100 today, you are invited to Opening Day. Everyone should see what we’ve helped build, and the joy brought to these young kids. And we’ll still throw a huge party afterwards and you’re on the list for that, too. You’ll receive your email invite in a month. Construction on the field will be completed in late August. We cannot, unfortunately, pay for your food and lodging :)
Everyone who participates should see this magical place we’re building – it’s just off HWY 130 on an old country road near the water tower.
If you build it, they will come.
And there’s this kid, but there’s really many kids, and there’s this guy with a dream, and this plot of land. At a glance, it’s so random to build this amazing field in Hutto, Texas. Nobody was ever going to build a field here on this thin layer of topsoil. And that’s exactly why we’re going to build it.
The goal is set at $50,0000. Chive Charities has made the largest donation in our history: $200,000. We’re going to let theCHIVE community bring it home. We’ll see y’all in a place called Hutto soon. If you have a child with a disability, he can come play on opening day. We’ll all raise a glass after.