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Higher Calling


Deep among the hills of the Dominican Republic are a people so poor, so disregarded, they all but don’t exist. Of Haitian origin, they were enticed by offers of good jobs but instead were brought in to work the sugar fields and left to fend for themselves in slums known as bateyes. Men spend long days in the fields, looking for work, or in bars. Women, many just teenagers with little to no education, have multiple children, fathered by workers passing through.

Homes are metal lean-tos. No running water. Decrepit mattresses serve as beds for entire families. Farm animals wander about. Food and clothing are scarce. Medical care is minimal at best.

When the then-fledgling Pujols Family Foundation quietly brought a handful of dentists from St. Louis, Mo., in early 2007 to hold a much-needed clinic, the dental lights, tools and sounds frightened a number of children. So as the children waited their turn in the makeshift clinic, there was Albert Pujols, the Albert Pujols, the St. Louis Cardinals’ All-Star slugger, down on one knee, his thick arms wiping away the tears and quietly comforting the children.

No TV trucks, no reporters or photographers, just this large man with the deep, soft voice calming children as a father would, in a place where most children don’t really know their fathers.

“To see Albert patting their leg, talking to them, taking his Kleenex and wiping the tears …” said Dick Armington, of Compassion International, which coordinated the ground logistics for the dental clinic. “I looked around and thought, ‘Who’s watching this? Nobody. Nobody is here to document this.’”

But Albert and wife Deidre never created the foundation to be a personal showcase. Instead, its focus is clear: Helping the poorest of the poor in Albert’s home country as well as those with Down syndrome. And that help does not come in the form of handouts, but in the creation of opportunities.

“The poverty that struck me most, moved me most was the poorness of their knowledge,” says Deidre Pujols of her early visits to the bateyes. “And we had the resources, the information, the people who want to donate and support. … I felt like I could give them something new, confidence, encouragement, inspiration, resources.”

The Pujols Family Foundation officially launched May 5, 2005. But its beginnings can be traced to Jan. 1, 2000, when Albert and Deidre (who had a young daughter, Isabella, with Down syndrome) wed shortly before Albert’s 20th birthday.

That year, the Cardinals’ 1999 13th-round draft pick worked his way from Class A to AAA. A year later, in 2001, he was the National League Rookie of the Year and an All-Star.

By 2003, the couple was already taking part in local Buddy Walk events to help those with Down syndrome.

Today, the foundation hosts more than 50 events per year, the majority for those with DS, ranging from an All-Star Game and Home Run Derby to mother-daughter and father-son bowling with Albert and Deidre, a fall festival, boating and cooking classes and now a cheer squad.

“It’s just been one incredible thing after another,” says Karen Cunningham, whose daughter, Miki, has Down syndrome. “They see a need, or something our kids don’t get to do, and they make it happen. … As a parent of a Down syndrome child, I don’t think any of us can really express what that means to us.”

And, of course, for those 16 and over with Down syndrome, the foundation hosts the biggest party of all — the Autumn Prom, complete with valet parking, a red-carpet entrance, food galore, party pictures and the best band in town. As soon as the music starts, over 300 teens and adults with DS and their dates dance their hearts out for a nearly solid three hours, joining Cardinals mascot Fredbird in the longest of conga lines and going crazy when Albert takes to the dance floor.

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But it’s not the glamor of the events that creates the joy. It’s the opportunity to see old friends and make new friends. To get to do “normal” things. To feel normal. And Albert’s hugs and high fives are just a part of that normalcy, as this group sees him not as a celebrity but as their friend, that guy with the great smile who’s fun and thinks they’re fun too.

“With the kids, yes, he’s Albert. Yes he plays for the Cardinals. But it really doesn’t matter,” says foundation CEO/Executive Director Todd Perry. “He could drive a truck for all they care, and they would love him, because he gives it back and that’s all that’s wanted. For someone like Albert, that’s such a change of pace.”

Meanwhile, in the Dominican, that dental mission has grown into so much more. On the 2007 trip, members of the Pujols Foundation came across a mother seeking help for her child. When they unwrapped the child’s blanket, they realized the child had already died of dehydration following care by a voodoo doctor.

That led to the Pujols’ personal backing of the Child Survival Program for infants and toddlers. Since then, the Pujolses and the foundation (which employs two: Todd Perry and program manager Jen Cooper) have:

• Created a microenterprise program with NEST, a St. Louis nonprofit, to educate women in the Domincan on how to support themselves, from hair care to baking to sewing, even providing sewing machines for the women to make bags to sell.

• In 2008, held a vision clinic, in addition to multiple physician visits.

• In 2009, for the foundation’s Operation Sound Asleep, Albert himself carried bed frames and mattresses into homes and set them up.

“It’s a big surprise to them to see someone like Albert Pujols in the batey, and the things he’s doing, how he gets in touch with them and hugs them and picks up the children,” says Bernard Okeke, of Compassion International. “He gets involved. … That brings out the best of the people in the batey.”

And now comes the biggest event of all — Batey Baseball, which was set to debut in November. Talk of the league began in spring 2009. By this July, more than 150 boys in Batey Aleman, ages 6-15, had all new uniforms and equipment, donated primarily by Rawlings and Nike, through Albert’s and Todd’s phone calls.

Those in the batey spent the rest of the summer and fall practicing, preparing for when Albert, Deidre, Todd and other major league players were scheduled to celebrate the inauguration of Batey Baseball and teach a two-day baseball clinic.

“I get so inspired when Albert has the opportunity to be in the Dominican Republic and look a little boy right in the face and see himself there,” says Deidre. “Even though they’re living in an impoverished situation, they’re vibrant, full of life. They can’t wait to learn about baseball, they can’t wait to wear the new glove or put on cleats or a uniform.”

Even the men in the batey are taking interest, helping maintain the ball field, promising not to sell the uniforms. And along with the clinic, Albert will talk with them on faith and fatherhood and responsibility, something the father of four himself believes in so deeply.

“They’re simple people, very ordinary, nothing extraordinary,” says Okeke of Albert and Deidre. “Very sensitive people.”

After that, it’s back to St. Louis. On Dec. 4, the foundation will host its annual O’ Night Divine, an alcohol-free dinner and auction to help raise funds and explain some of the foundation’s events. Then a week off for Christmas, then it’s back to work.

“Never is it going to be enough to glorify God,” Albert explained at last year’s dinner. “Until He tells me, ‘That’s enough now, son, I want you with me.’ That’s when I’m going to be done with this.”