Sports everywhere serve as recreation and physical activity. A chance to bond, and commiserate.

In Belize, they mean so much more.

“Sports create open windows and open worlds,” said Shane Williams, President of the Belize City Softball Association.

“I have seen the power that sports have to change communities.”

In 2019, Pitch In For Baseball & Softball and Philadelphia Adult League Softball (PALS) teamed up to provide softball equipment to Belize City Softball Association. 19 representatives of PALS, a coed recreational softball league in Philadelphia, traveled down to Belize in July to facilitate clinics and deliver the equipment, which was later distributed to schools throughout Belize City.

Williams shared his story on a recent zoom conference hosted by PALS Director and Co-Founder Kelly O’Connor. The organization provided updates and reflected on last year’s donation project.

“Where I grew up on Craw Road is an intersection of four of the major violent gangs in the city. It’s difficult because you have to be concerned for your safety,” Williams said.

“Softball and baseball was an opportunity for me to escape that one-mile radius, because for most of us that one-mile radius is our entire world. We don’t really see that there is much more than this.”

The sport allowed Williams to travel outside of Belize City. As his skills on the field improved, it provided opportunities for him to travel and play outside the country, and across the continent.

“It let me see that there was more to life than what people expect can come out of a community like ours,” Williams said.

“There isn’t a lot of hope, I would say. We aren’t expected to really make anything much out of the deck of cards that we have been given. But when doors are open, and when our eyes are open, and we see that there is much more to life than surviving on the block, then we have bigger dreams.”

Between the PIFBS donation and other items collected by PALS, over 1,200 pounds of equipment was distributed to eight low-income primary schools in Belize City to either start or restart their softball programs, which would be offered as part of the school’s physical education programs.

Belize does not have organized baseball, but softball is among the most popular sports in the country. Yet it’s popularity has diminished among the nation’s youth, as access to the sport has become increasingly hard to come by.

In fact, one baseball alone costs about 15 US dollars.

“In primary schools there is a lack of equipment, so softball or baseball is not taught,” Williams said.

“So the sport that was most popular in the country is one of the least popular ones for the younger generation, because of lack of access to equipment.”

In order to receive the equipment through the PALS initiative, adult representatives from the schools were required to attend the clinics or receive separate training so that the programs could be sustainable. In total, approximately 1,900 students benefitted from having softball as part of their physical education curriculum.

Two of the clinics’ participants decided to try out for the U-17 Belize Junior National Team. Both were selected, and in November they competed in the Pan American Softball Championships in Guatemala.

Stella Maris School, the largest special education school in Belize City, was one of the schools who received equipment. This enabled them to introduce softball for the first time. Softball equipment was also provided to Belize City’s Princess Royal Youth Hostel youth detention center to make the sport available to its residents.

The impact of the sport runs deep. The opportunities it provides have been life changing.

“I grew up on one of the most dangerous streets in Belize City. Right now, Craw Road is one of the safest streets in Belize City,” Williams said.

“And how did that happen? The same individuals who were gangsters and criminals – some of them matured, some of them were rehabilitated, sadly prison rehabilitated some – but those same individuals came out into the community and started community sports clubs.”

One of the local community sports clubs is City Boys United. Many kids who have played there have gone on to earn sports scholarships.

“Many of them have been able to travel outside of Belize for sports because of this community sports club that was started by individuals who were written off by society. So this showed the power of change and what sports can do.”

Williams said he would not be where he is today without the opportunities that sports provided him.

“I received a scholarship to go to high school because of sports, the job that I have is because of people who I have met in softball. I was able to meet many, many people who provided opportunities for development and growth.

“Sports change the community. And it can save many, many lives.”