EMORY, Va. - Faith, a return trip to the Czech Republic and - of course - softball has kept Emory & Henry College head softball coach Tommy Forrester busy this summer.
Over the past twelve years, Forrester has traveled to the Czech Republic on ten different occasions. The mission trip is a partnership with the United Methodist Church Three Rivers District of the Holston Conference to help serve as a team leader for a week-long softball camp.
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The five-day no-cost camp was held from July 1-5 and featured many of the characteristics of the summer camps Forrester puts on back in the United States. The 39 campers – ranging in age from 8 to 22 – worked on the beginning skills in multiple stations. Competitions included the hardest throw, longest throw, and a home run derby.
"Softball is still a growing sport in the Czech Republic," added Forrester. "We have to start with the very basics of the game."
The country recently hosted the Men's Softball World Championship but finding a place to play softball can still be a challenge. The camp was organized on a semi-pro soccer field in the small town of Protivín.
"They don't have the equipment, so we have to take absolutely everything including gloves, bats, balls, bases, and a couple of batting tees for the younger kids," said Forrester.
The group also brings along camp t-shirts and gifts collected from local churches to give to camp participants. The multi-faceted camp aims to do more than improve softball skills. The main draw for many is the opportunity to work on and improve their conversational English skills.
The group also practices what Forrester calls, "backdoor evangelism" as a large part of the country does not identify with any organized religion. Only three of the kids in attendance this year identified themselves as Christians.
"We want to talk to them about Christ, but we do it through building relationships," said Forrester. "While we are there, we also get a chance to support the other Christians living in the country, as they are a smaller part of the overall population."
Emory & Henry Director of Athletics Anne Crutchfield joined Forrester this year as a trip leader. Highlights for her took place during the daily softball breaks that featured some high energy games of capture the flag.
"I told my husband that I will be going back again next year," joked Crutchfield.
Forrester says it's these relationships that keep him coming back year after year. The camp sees many returning faces each summer. He says it's essential for him to return annually to show them that he is committed to their growth not only on the field but in faith.
"I always look forward to going on this mission trip," added Forrester. "I have done camps for many years all over the United States, but it's different there. In the Czech Republic, the team I was coaching did not win a game, and I was fine with that. That same feeling wouldn't happen back home!"
Ultimately, this annual tradition helps Forrester get back to his roots in both his faith and softball
"Faith is the most important thing in my life, and softball is somewhere in the top 5."