Each March for the past six years, Western University kinesiology professor Darwin Semotiuk has been taking a group of his students to Cuba.
It’s all a part of the Study Abroad course, offered as an academic credit to senior graduate and undergradute students. The course involved thirteen weeks of classes and eight days in Cuba.
“It’s been really great experience for our students and one that we’ve been able to factor in a humanitarian component, so the idea of giving more than taking is very much present,” Semotiuk said.
Through some modest fund-raising and some knocking on doors, the Western group has headed south with their hands full each year.
This year moreso than others.
The WestJet flight with Semotiuk and the 11 students also carried 60 baseball bats, courtesy of The Original Maple Bat Corporation in Ottawa and its president and owner Arlene Anderson.
Estimated cost of the bats? $10,000. Value to baseball-mad Cubans? Priceless.
The windfall was the result of a cold call made by Western student Nan Zhang who grew up in Ottawa and was well aware of the company and its bats. Many major-league players have used them, including Barry Bonds on his way to his record 73 homers in 2001.
A former second baseman with the national junior team program, Zhang used the maple bats growing up and he was hoping an email to Anderson might produce some results. But even he was shocked with the windfall.
“I thought it was just right to do something to help give back to the game that has given me so much, especially in Cuba where baseball there is the biggest sport,” Zhang, 20, said.
Semotiuk said the program is set up each year with the help of the Cuban government, specifically with INDER which is its equivalent of Sport Canada.
“They (INDER) set up the program, so we are visiting schools, high-performance sports centres, taking in cultural performances and athletic performances. Like this year, for instance, there is a major international wrestling tournament that we’ll have a chance to see,” Semotiuk said.
Semotiuk said one bat was specially created for Christian Molina, president of INDER.
Everybody pitching in
Semotiuk and the students filled large football bags with items such as tennis balls, lacrosse sticks, Fox 40 whistles – “they’re incredibly popular because they can’t get them,” Semotiuk said — and gifts from No Frills, MacDonald’s and others.
“Another really good source has been the lost and found at the Western recreation centre. So a lot of those items — for example, the basketballs, volleyballs — have been stuff they were looking to pitch out and they will get a really good use there.”