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Pitching In

Heather Sternby 573px

Track and field’s Heather Sternby relaxed with a Dominican girl after painting.

Student-Athletes Lend a Hand—and a Bat—in Service Trip

By Matthew Burglund
April 16, 2015
Appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of
IUP Magazine.

Deep in the sugarcane fields of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, among the poorest of the world’s poor, a group of IUP student-athletes became rich—not in terms of dollars, but in the knowledge that they had enriched the lives of others.

Over the past three years, IUP student-athletes have helped build hurricane-safe housing and sanitary bathrooms in the Dominican Republic’s Village 50. View a gallery of photos from past trips.

They did it by lending a hand to those in need—with hammers and paint brushes, and with bats and baseballs.

“It’s really something that everyone should experience,” said Stefanie McCoy, a senior on the Crimson Hawks’ softball team.

In January, 23 current and former IUP student-athletes traveled to the Dominican Republic on a service trip organized by Erie-based charity Meeting God in Missions. They helped build and paint homes, assisted with medical and vision care, and also taught children about sports.

The Dominican Republic and Haiti, two nations that share an island in the Caribbean, have struggled over the years with poverty and political strife, not to mention annual threats from hurricanes that could wipe almost everything away.

The trip was part of the greater mission IUP athletes are charged with every day. They are expected to excel in the classroom, on the playing fields, and in the community—locally and globally.

“If our student-athletes come through here and they don’t come out as better people, and if where they go they don’t make it a better situation for others, then we will have failed them,” said Frank Condino, IUP’s recently retired director of athletics, who has taken several trips over the years with the ministry.

The trip had a definite impact on those who took it.

“These people are just looking for someone to hang out with,” said former IUP baseball player Robbie Zinsmeister. The 2013 graduate took his first trip to the Dominican Republic in January.

“I feel like they forgot about their hardships when we were there,” he said. “They’re just happy people, and it touches your heart. It rubs off on you. You realize how grateful you should be about how much you have.”

Condino added several staff members to these trips over the years. Scott Weigner, a campus minister and advisor to the university’s chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, has been on some of them, and his wife, Liz, accompanied the IUP contingent on its most recent journey.

“They give up a lot in order to go do these things,” Weigner said of the IUP student-athletes. “That’s not to say there’s not a blessing gained. But for students to give up a week of their semester break to go down there and stay in those conditions—it’s nice to see.”

In addition to spending a week doing things many people would expect to be paid for, some of the students pay their own travel expenses.

IUP baseball coach Jeff Ditch has been on the trips and has noticed how being with people who can survive on what many others throw away has affected him, as well as the student-athletes.

“It’s something that becomes bigger than you,” Ditch said. “When you participate in this, you get a lot back. I refer to these trips every single day.”

Ditch called McCoy “a great example of a student-athlete who leads by example. She takes great joy in doing this work.”

A broad smile comes across McCoy’s face when she talks about the time she has spent on her three mission trips and the people she has met.

“It’s an incredible experience, every single time,” she said.

No two trips are the same, which is one reason many in the group have gone several times. The work, though, routinely involves helping to improve conditions in areas where many Haitians and Dominicans subsist in straw houses and shacks with mud floors.

“We just try to give these families a clean, safe place to live,” Weigner said. “We have just about finished building an entire village.”

Volunteers also help physicians and optometrists care for families in the villages.

But, time is set aside to play, and children get tips from the college athletes in any number of sports, including baseball, softball, and soccer.

“You could do something different every day,” Zinsmeister said. “You had the opportunity to sign up for whatever you wanted. I did the baseball thing a couple times, and I did a lot of construction and painting. I really did enjoy it. I’m glad I had a chance to go.”

By spending a week with people who think of running water and electricity as luxuries, McCoy felt humbled, she said. The experience opened her eyes to the problems of developing nations.

“You go there, and they tell you that you are a blessing to them,” McCoy said. “But when it comes down to it, it’s the opposite. They are a blessing to us.”

That’s the wealth the IUP student-athlete volunteers have gained. It’s what Condino was hoping for when he started pushing for the trips.

“The athletes are changed forever when they come back, because many of them have never seen poverty like that,” Condino said. “They’ve never seen people working in the sugarcane fields for two or three dollars a day.”

When Zinsmeister returned home in January, he immediately started thinking about what he could do next. He’s ready to spread his wealth.

“These trips could help anyone,” he said. “It doesn’t just have to be the Dominican Republic. It could be somewhere in the United States. If anybody goes on a trip like this, it’s life changing.”

Click any photo below to start the photo gallery.

Above: Frank Condino, IUP's recently retired athletic director, assisted with a baseball clinic in the Dominican Republic; Right; Lauren Hogue, of the IUP softball team, with children in the Dominican Republic’s Village 51

Above: Frank Condino, retired athletic director, brought sand for cement; Right:Robbie Zinsmeister ’13 helped with baseball clinics in addition to construction and painting.

Above: Casey McGowan, of the field hockey team, played with children during a break in Village 50 (above) and carried cinder blocks for new bathrooms (right).

Above:Abby McCormick, IUP women’s tennis, did some interior painting in the Dominican Republic’s Village 50; Center:Liz Weigner, left, and IUP softball’s Stefanie McCoy painted the hurricane-safe housing the student-athletes helped to build in the Dominican Republic’s Village 50; Right: January’s service trip was the third for Stefanie McCoy, a senior on the softball team.

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