One man's journey, and dream, to make a difference
By Miriam Orr
At first glance, First Pitch is just your usual machine shop – high ceilings, heavy machinery, workers buzzing around like bees in a hive. Towards the back of the shop, precise lines of baseball pitching machines sit, waiting to undergo test phases and the finishing touches that purchasing and shipment promise.
However, in one corner of the shop sits a desk, computer, and a large window. What's even more surprising than an office directly on the shop's floor is the fact that in the windowsill, half a dozen pictures of Haitian children sit; faces smiling brightly as sunshine filters in, each and every one a testament of devotion, compassion, and love.
These are the children of Caroline's House.
A man on a journey
The aforementioned, picture-filled office belongs to one Steve Vanoss, owner and operator of First Pitch in Maple Plain. While first meeting Steve, you would not think he's a man on a mission – he's a machinist by trade, complete with a workman's hands and a businessman's smile. But, if you take one look at his office space, you would see that there's a lot more to the man behind the business.
Vanoss' First Pitch has been around the block. Opened in 1999, the business has been in Greenfield, Independence, and has seen other homes in Minnesota, now ultimately located in Maple Plain. What's unique about the business is that it is one of only a few pitching machine manufacturers' in not only the state, but also the U.S. – and, its passion is not only for baseball and softball. Behind the scenes, First Pitch is working to pitch in across the globe, to a small village called Fonds -Des-Negres, commonly known as Fon-De-Nég in Haiti.
With a population of approximately 10,000 individuals, Fon-De-Nég is small, crowded, and severely impoverished. "Employment is a serious issue," Steve explained. "But, that's the nature of Haiti – few who are rich, and many who suffer."
The village is about 75 miles southwest from Port-au-Prince, and is a long trip by car. Fon-De-Nég is a mountainside village and requires crossing a ravine to reach the people. It is very remote, impoverished, and unrecognized.
In mid-July of 2016, Steve explained that while he was visiting Haiti, he had the stark realization that people in Haiti where just that – people. They were not faces on a television screen or subjects of the news. They weren't just victims of unfavorable circumstances or earthquakes or poverty – they were people, and they had purpose, just like he did.
"I got this overwhelming feeling in my heart," Steve said. "An overpowering love for these people just came on me when I was bouncing along in the back seat, on my way to the village. From there on, I just knew I had to dedicate my life to giving these people a chance."
What is interesting about Steve's story is that his company, First Pitch, is not the only organization that he works around. In 2016, Steve began the "Caroline's House" project, where he decided to build an orphanage for children who were subjects of extreme poverty and whose parents couldn't care for them any longer.
The project consists of, currently, one orphanage building. However, Steve's dream is to build a girls house, one for boys, and a church – eventually. Caroline's House altogether is approximately $60,000, and so far, there are about 15 children in Steve's charge and care, though he hopes that the house and its provisions will impact other families and individuals regardless of stature, too. He stated that there are about 300 children in Fon-De-Nég alone that face difficulty and lack everyday necessities.
What Vanoss is most passionate about, however, is the children's education. "There is a ridiculous amount of children that aren't being educated," he said, frustrated. "My goal is to house them and send them to school, so they have a chance at learning to read, write, and learn basic skills to help them get a job."
Steve has been passionate about underprivileged communities his entire life. He has worked in places such as downtown Chicago, and the hills of Mexico, and first began his journey to Haiti in 2011. He got started with the project for Caroline's House when someone approached him about donating money to buy land for a building in Fon-De-Nég, and Steve went to go and visit the plot – and, as of July 2016, he has a total of 5 staff-members working with children to provide uniforms for school, and make sure they have a roof over their heads.
First Pitch gives Vanoss the means to provide a lot of resources and ship them to Haiti to help the people of Fon-De-Nég – items like food, cars filled with clothing and necessities, parts, tools, and other items are just a few of the things that have blessed Haiti's people through First Pitch.
Steve doesn't take the glory, though. He credits his success to other organizations in the community who have partnered with him and, as he says, "Have great passion for these people, too." Together, through a small operational investment, they work to try and bring the people of Fon-De-Nég basic items that make life a little easier.
The story behind the name
Caroline's House, as you may have guessed, got its name from a unique individual who changed Steve's life – and his outlook – on the Haitian people.
In Dec. of 2015, Steve met six-month-old Caroline on a different trip, in a different village outside of Port-au-Prince. Born to impoverished parents without documentation or a birth certificate, Caroline weighed approximately five pounds. Her mother couldn't provide food or the means to survive any longer on her own, so she brought her to the orphanage that Steve had been visiting and working with. He ended up staying a long month with Caroline, in an attempt to nurse her to health. However, despite medical treatment, a regular diet, and constant care, Caroline died at eight-months-old, due to the fact that her liver was underdeveloped and that her body was severely malnourished.
"She changed the way I saw these people," Steve commented solemnly. "They weren't a TV ad, or subjects of a newsletter, or victims. They were people. Real, tangible people, with souls and feelings and needs. My heart just broke for Caroline and her mother."
Now, tucked back on a Haitian mountainside, on a small piece of ground sits Caroline's House, where the work is so much more than just four walls and a roof. In a "Caroline's House Update" regarding the project, Steve said that, "It is about serving these children, and this community, and showing God's love."
One such individual who has been the beneficiary of Steve's attention is Jesica, a 12-year-old girl who lives at Caroline's House and is, by all terms of the word, Steve's best friend.
"I met her in 2012, on a different trip in a different village. Her mom drowned, and her father was uninvolved, so she was alone in the world. She was always around and sat with me, and always had so much to say. When I opened up Caroline's House, I had to take her with me," Vanoss reminisced.
Currently, Jesica is in school, working towards finishing her education. She wants to attend law school to serve the community of Fon-De-Nég.
The Fon-De-Nég pitch
Caroline's House does not just provide safety and opportunity for children. Steve's project is in cooperation with the nation itself, and the village's local government to provide working opportunities.
"Eventually, I would like to build a church, and more homes," Steve added. "Those projects provide working opportunities to families, and steady wages for a short time. It gives them hope."
Other organizations in the U.S. have stepped up alongside Steve in "pitching in." Maple Plain Community Church has expressed interest in sending missionaries and funds to Fon-De-Nég, and Riverwood Church in Greenfield is in the works, too. So far, Steve hasn't taken anyone with him to Haiti – yet. He states that they have the room to accommodate missionaries, but all he needs are willing bodies to go and serve.
Among other things, the community severely needs is a bridge that connects the main road to the village, over a rocky ravine that is dangerous – and difficult – to cross with vehicles. Steve has looked into it, and, the bridge itself would cost approximately $6,000, and provide opportunities for work. The difficulty resides in raising funds and getting people involved who want to contribute to the dream.
"It's hard doing it as one person." Steve said. "It's growing so much that it's becoming something that I as a single individual can't do. I need people to come up beside me to make this happen for these kids, and this community."
Currently, Steve is working on preparing for a Spring 2018 trip to Haiti, where he will be taking parts and tools to the community to work on houses and vehicles. What he hopes to take with him, however, is a hopeful promise of additional help, and clothes.
"Clothes are the biggest material thing. Some of these kids have never even seen shoes. They need children's clothes, and children's shoes," Vanoss stated.
When he ships vehicles, Steve said it is easiest to fill them with clothes, household items, and other necessities to solve more than one basic need. Children's items are the biggest need for the village, as many of the children don't wear clothes, or have shoes.
"This is about people," he said. "People are so much greater than money. That's why I do this with my business. People are greater than money, and we tend to lose sight of that as privileged Americans. These people are valuable, and they matter. That's why I do what I do and why I love doing it."
For more information on how you can help, you can call 763-479-6245. Donations can be donated at the First Pitch, 5130 Industrial St., Suite 100 Maple Plain, Minn.
Vanoss asks that if you can't give financially or by donation, please keep the children of Caroline's House, and Fon-De-Nég, in your thoughts and prayers.
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