Longwood, Fla. youth baseball team adopts deployed U.S. Army lieutenant in Iraq as its honorary coach

3/31/2010

As a disabled veteran of the United States Army, Tom Melani is always looking for ways to show his support to deployed military overseas.

That is why, when he got the idea from the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) to adopt a deployed military member from his community to serve as his team’s honorary coach, he acted quickly to get his team involved.

Melani had already become friendly with Bryan Schmidt, a friend of his neighbor who happened to be a First Lieutenant serving in Iraq with the U.S. Army, and was eager to show his appreciation any way he could.

Melani named Schmidt the “Honorary Military Coach” of his 7- to 8-year-old Rookie Dodgers from the Longwood (Fla.) Babe Ruth baseball league. Along with receiving care packages full of useful supplies and being included on all team emails, “Coach Schmidt” has been communicating with the Rookie Dodgers through the team’s Facebook group, where he receives game recaps and updates on everyone’s progress.

“Bryan is good friends with my neighbor and has become a friend of mine,” said Melani. “He was selected after I talked about this with my neighbor and we thought that Bryan would benefit from our support. He was deployed to Iraq soon after getting married last year.”

In an effort to provide support and boost morale to deployed individuals overseas, NAYS has been urging its member communities to recognize local individuals who are deployed overseas by adopting them as an honorary coach and sending team updates and care packages throughout the season.

This practice is especially meaningful for youth sports coaches or parents who may have been deployed midseason – or in Melani’s case, for a friend from the local community.

“The team and parents have embraced this wonderful initiative and they are enjoying learning about what Coach Schmidt is doing over there for our country,” Melani said.

The Rookie Dodgers have already sent Coach Schmidt two care packages, which included candy, beef jerky, a baseball, granola bars, chips, baby wipes, gum, personally written letters from the team and a team jersey with his name on it. In fact, the team is collecting so many goods that three more packages are scheduled to be shipped in April.

“We want to spread the goodies out,” Melani said.

Melani added Schmidt’s name to the Rookie Dodgers team banner as their “Honorary Military Coach,” which they hang on the dugout for their games. They also hang a picture of Coach Schmidt in the dugout so that he is with them during games.

Both honored and humbled by the actions of Melani and his youngsters, in return Schmidt sent each team member an Iraqi postcard, a handwritten letter and a 100 Iraqi Dinari note – which is equivalent to about 25 cents. Schmidt is scheduled to receive two weeks of leave in May and plans to attend a game before being redeployed.

“He also mentioned the program to his platoon sergeant and he asked if we could adopt some of the younger soldiers who could use a morale boost,” Melani said.

This community-wide effort provides a unique way to stay in touch with deployed individuals, as well as provides teams with a meaningful and productive activity. Melani and his Rookie Dodgers are setting such a wonderful example throughout their community that they are motivating other teams in their league to participate as well. Longwood Babe Ruth provides baseball, T-ball and softball for more than 700 boys and girls living in the cities of Longwood, Lake Mary, Oviedo and Sanford.

“My goal is to get 100 percent participation from our league,” Melani said. “I have contacted a local National Guard Commander to gather the names of more soldiers who recently were deployed to Iraq. As soon as they settle in and send their addresses, I will be passing the names out to each team to give them the opportunity to participate.”

NAYS encourages all of its chapters follow the lead of the Rookie Dodgers of Longwood Babe Ruth by supporting a deployed individual from their community. This wonderful initiative is just another example of how positive youth sports can not only be beneficial for participating youth, but also for entire communities.

For information on how to adopt a deployed serviceman or servicewoman from your community contact the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) at (800) 688-KIDS or email ashilling@nays.org.

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