By Amy Perrette, Producer, NBC News
ISLAND PARK, NY – In a small town on Long Island, still less than half rebuilt after Superstorm Sandy, Little League is finally getting underway.
Andrew Barwicki, who has been coaching Island Park Little League for four years, choked up while watching his players take the field for the first time on Saturday.
“We have 220 kids that are playing this weekend and those kids are having the times of their lives,” he said.
Third baseman Hayden Smith, 10, is thrilled to be back on the field after Sandy made their home uninhabitable.
Baseball is a reason to spend time together, he says.
“It’s fun because I never got to do this in a long, long time,” Hayden said.
The storm damaged homes and burst sewage pipes, flooding the whole town under four feet of water.
“Two days after the storm, I came here, I looked at all of our equipment, and I realized it was completely lost,” said Barwicki, who serves as the president of both the Island Park Little League and Barwicki Investor Relations. “That equipment floated away into the ocean. We lost about $15,000 worth of equipment.”
Island Park Little League has been a mainstay of the community since it began in 1957, so the possible loss of the 2013 season was devastating.
“People were out of their homes, they were displaced, people lost their jobs. I knew we could not go to the people of Island Park and ask them to pay,” said Barwicki.
That is when Philadelphia-based nonprofit “Pitch in for Baseball” stepped in, replacing all the ruined equipment with donated gear.
“Let your equipment play extra innings” is the organization’s motto.
David Rhode, executive director of “Pitch in For Baseball,” founded the organization in 2005 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina when was coaching his own boys. He noticed that expensive gear was piling up in his garage, unused.
“There have to be millions of people who have gear in their homes,” he thought at the time. “What if we were able to get that stuff in the hands of kids that really needed it?”
Since its inception, the organization has supplied over $3 million of equipment to over 300 communities in the United States and over 75 countries worldwide, including Columbia, Haiti, and Iraq.
“To give [children] the chance to play, for kids to be kids, for us is a tremendous privilege,” said Rhode.
The nonprofit is delivering nearly $150,000 worth of equipment to communities devastated by Sandy, including Island Park.
“Baseball’s incredibly important,” Rhode said. “To be able to give something familiar like playing the game of baseball gives kids a sense of comfort, enables them to heal in a really simple way. Kids have been asked to sacrifice a lot.”
Hayden’s mother, Sarah Smith, is especially grateful to “Pitch in for Baseball” for providing such a joyous moment for her son.
“There’s been a lot of sadness and a lot of loss, so to see him…I’m over the top happy,” she said. “I’ve been expressing sadness for so long, so the happiness is a little unfamiliar, but it’s great.”