By Sara Hall | NB Indy
While most kids were enjoying family time, turkey and pumpkin pie over the Thanksgiving break, players on the boys basketball team at Newport Harbor High School were visiting children in a cancer ward and an abuse recovery center in Puerto Rico.
Coach Larry Hirst took his team to Puerto Rico to participate in the inaugural Island Jam Basketball Tournament and then visit children at the Pediatric Cancer Ward and a center for abused children. Assistant coaches Bob Torirbio and Jason Carey also went on the trip.
“We used basketball as a tool to travel and go to these places and visit the children,” Hirst said. “I hope we brought a little joy to those kids’ lives.”
The team took gifts to the children, including basketballs, t-shirts, beanie babies to the cancer ward and pencil boxes of school supplies to the abused kids.
It’s not about the size of the gift, said parent Susan Friend, it can be small and still bring a lot of joy. Her son Logan said he would never forget the smiles on the youngsters’ faces.
The trip really helped teach the boys to give back to the community and not take for granted where they live and what they are have, Friend said.
“I think kids in general don’t understand how fortunate they are in today’s world, in this area,” Hirst said. “A bad day to them is if they can’t find their iPhone. We go down to visit those kids (and learn about their lives), 21 days of chemo with tubes and chemicals running through you, now there’s a bad day.”
Logan Friend was struck by their bravery, his mother Susan said, and their daily struggle. Some of the boys got pretty emotional, Hirst said., it helped the players realize how lucky they are.
“It’s hard to understand how easy you have it until you see those less fortunate than you,” he said.
Even though they were missing Thanksgiving with their families, Hirst said both he and the boys felt it was worth it to spend time with the children.
“(Hirst) is building more than a basketball player,” Friend said.
It’s more about developing their character, teaching them to give back and helping them become community leaders, Friend said.
“The kids I coach are my future,” Hirst said, and he believes it’s important they grow up into responsible, caring adults that contribute to society and help others that are less fortunate.
“We (coaches) are not in the business of producing athletes, we’re in the business of producing young men that will be viable in society,” Hirst said.
Friend said her son Logan, a junior, is her third son to go through Hirst’s basketball team.
“Larry is not just interested in winning but developing the kids’ characters as well,” Friend said. “Combining basketball with community service.”
Hirst said he always tries to take the team on an end-of-the-year trip, usually to somewhere with a very different climate or different surroundings.
This year, he saw the opportunity arise for the tournament in Puerto Rico. He happens to have a friend who was born and raised in Puerto Rico and knows the area and has many contacts there, Hirst said. His friend, Manfredo Lespeir, who now lives locally, had contacts at both centers that helped Hirst get his players involved.
While at the cancer ward, the boys split up into two groups, Hirst said, one group went downstairs to visit with kids coming out of treatment and the other group went upstairs and visited with patients in their rooms.
One of the players was also fluent in Spanish, Hirst said, which came in very handy.
The team visited the cancer ward first, then on the last day of the trip, after the Sailors lost in double overtime, they visited the center for abused children.
They visited and talked with the kids and handed out the pencil boxes full of school supplies. The director at the center was so moved by their visit that he cried, Hirst said. To Hirst and the team, it wasn’t a big gesture, it was just the right thing to do.
The goal would be to do it every year, Hirst said, but he is unsure if they will be able to. They were very fortunate to find the tournament in Hirst’s friend’s homeland. Everything just fell into place, he said, which probably won’t happen every year.
The team consists of 12 players: Robbie Rettig, Conner Kelly, Craig McKennon, Carter Fortier, Omar Ramos, Chris Okey, Tom Pickett, Chance Fortier, Chris DeSoto, Cody Caldwell, Davis Brown and Logan Friend.
“It’s important to help out or give back,” Hirst said, “even if it’s just a smile.”