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West Michigan athletes bring holiday cheer, hope others will follow suit

Baseball season is still months away, but Sparta High School's baseball players are already hard at work, trying to address a rising need in their community.

SPARTA, Michigan — Seeing a baseball team getting together in the cold month of December may not be what you'd expect to see. But come Friday night, the Sparta High School baseball team will get together for some hard work at the Sparta Early Childhood Center.

The baseball team will be delivering turkey, ham, and Christmas trees to families in need across the community. It's exactly the kind of thing the current baseball coaching staff has been working to make happen since they started at Sparta a year ago.

"As a coaching staff, we're constantly talking about how can we get our team more involved in the community?" said coach Ryan Bloem.

"This community is basically built around the school, and it's so important that we get these guys in front of the community for a variety of reasons. But ultimately, especially this time of year, to help them understand the meaning of gratitude."

Community partners were quick to jump on board.

"When we reached out to Novo Chiropractic, Majestic Lawncare, and Family Fare, they didn't even bat an eye. They jumped at the opportunity to help our baseball team," Bloem said.

Junior baseball players Nathan Speck and Nic Gordon say they're both happy to help the community that brought them up, and they're grateful for a coaching staff that gave them a way to make that happen.

"They've all taught us a lot about baseball and how to be better on the field, but also off the field. They've taught us quite a few life lessons," Gordon said.

One of those life lessons is about doing something that's bigger than yourself.

"They've really taught us a lot that the name on the front [of the jersey] is a lot more important than one on the back and that you play for your team and as one," Speck said.

In this case, that name on the front of the jersey, "Sparta," represents more than just the baseball team. It means scoring a win for the entire community. That's why the baseball team got community school coordinators Cinda Birely, Sarah Cline, Kevin Vandermeer, and Jodi West involved in the effort.

Fighting hunger in the community is something those coordinators already have a lot of experience doing.

"We coordinate a monthly mobile food pantry for our community here in Sparta," Birely said.

"We partner with Feeding America, and they provide a truck full of fresh produce, and dairy and healthy food. And then we organize volunteers to come help distribute that food to families that are experiencing food scarcity."

When the pandemic arrived in Michigan nearly three years ago, it took a financial toll on many people in Sparta. Inflation made it even worse. Today, the number of people who have a hard time affording food for their families is growing.

"It's about one in eight people in Kent County, which is unacceptable, frankly. And that's why we do what we do. We don't want that number to be what it is," said Molly Kooi who serves as the communication and marketing manager for Feeding America West Michigan.

The staff at Feeding America is grateful for people like the baseball players who have stepped up to try to fill that void, and they're hoping more people follow suit.

"It takes a village right? It takes a village to raise great young men. It takes a village to win a baseball game for sure. And it takes a village to have this wonderful community that we have," Bloem said.

If you would like to help your local community overcome food insecurity you can donate to Feeding America West Michigan through their website. They can stretch one dollar far enough to provide about 10 meals for families in need. If you are in need of food, the organization also has a page to help you find events and services in your area.

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