photo: Laura Bijnsdorp

PHILIPSBURG – The Little League Ball program on Sint Maarten was hit hard by hurricane Irma last month. Their clubhouse filled with materials and memories was blown away.

Tom Burnett, better known as Coach Tom, spends most of his afternoons at the Little League Ball Field. Since 2012, he runs an after school baseball program called: ‘Player Development’, which targets vulnerable youth on Sint Maarten.

Article continues after the video

By Laura Bijnsdorp

‘Player Development’ teaches kids ages 4 and up to play baseball and take part in games as a team. A number of their players are now playing abroad, in college and on a professional level.

Homework first, baseball second
“I have playing with Coach Tom since I was 6. I like baseball because it is fun, and I get to run and pitch” says, now eight year old, Francine. Besides teaching and coaching baseball, Coach Tom put a heavy emphasis on education, requiring each of his players to first finish a number of assignments before heading to the field.

“The assignments focus on mainly reading, writing, math, but also geology, science and other subjects.” Explains Coach Michelle, a volunteer & teacher with the program.

With the help of his players, his wife Lisa, volunteers and sponsors, the program quickly grew. During the past five years, the club-received four containers. These containers were transformed into a classroom, gym, science lab and library. Players in the program, but also kids whom did not form part of the baseball team used the clubhouse on a daily basis.

All gone after Irma
“When I came out to the field, it was all gone.” Says, team captain Carlos who is twelve years old, in disbelief. Francine, who lives close to the ballpark, was one of the first to see the destruction that Irma had left behind: “It was a mess!”

Returning to the field
Today, five weeks after Irma, only a third of the players are back. However Coach Tom is confident that as normalcy returns to the island, all of the kids will return to the program. “There are only two more kids that we haven’t seen as yet. Lisa and I went to look for them, but their house is destroyed.”

Besides the regular assignments, the coaches of the program are making sure the kids have the opportunity to work through their experiences surrounding Irma. “The psychologist that we work with emphasized that it is important to have the kids share their stories but also take part in the rebuilding process.”

Rebuilding for the kids
For a moment, Tom doubted if he could resume the program. Besides the damage on the field, his family had also sustained a lot of damage to their own house.

On the point of giving up, a friend reminded him that the heart of the program had always lied with the kids. “We will build back. If the kids are happy, that’s what counts.”