Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw is helping kids around, including one very special girl in Africa
Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw is 25 years old. That's an age at which many players are just breaking into the big leagues. But not Kershaw. The lefty won the National League Cy Young Award in 2011, finished second in the voting last year, and, with a 1.35 ERA and 72 strikeouts over his first 10 starts this season, is well on his way to making his third consecutive All-Star team.
There's no doubt he's building a legacy. And yet, the most important part of his legacy has little to do with baseball. His greatest achievement hasn't come on the mound, or even in America. It's half a world away.
Four years ago, Clayton's wife, Ellen, was on a missionary trip with a group called Arise Africa. In Zambia, a country in the south central portion of the continent, she met a 10-year-old orphan named Hope. Hope was HIV-positive and had lost both of her parents to AIDS. In the winter of 2011, Clayton and Ellen journeyed to Zambia to visit her.
"It changes you," Clayton Kershaw said last October. "It puts things in perspective."
By the end of that trip, the Kershaws were determined to make a difference in Hope's life, and in the lives of other kids just like her. They came up with a plan. They would build a home for Hope and about a dozen orphans. Two years later, Hope and seven other kids are learning, growing, and living in The Arise Home. And it's all thanks to the Kershaws.
A Life-Changing Discovery
Kershaw was born in Dallas, Texas. When he was 10 years old, his parents divorced and he was raised by his mom, Marianne. Clayton and Ellen had been close since junior high. He was interested in attending Texas A&M, where Ellen later went to school, but he always worried about being able to afford college.
Then in 2006, everything changed. After a stellar senior season at Highland Park High School in Dallas (Kershaw went 13–0 and once struck out all 15 batters he faced in a state playoff game), he was drafted with the seventh overall pick by the Dodgers. Los Angeles signed him for $2.3 million. With his future more assured, Kershaw felt his responsibility to help others, as well as his faith in God, deepening. It was what Kershaw called a "life-changing" discovery.
Kershaw spent only two years in the minors before making his big league debut at age 20, becoming the youngest player in the majors at the time. He consistently draws comparisons with the great Dodger lefthander Sandy Koufax, not just because of the "K" in their last names (or the hundreds of "K's" in the scorebook), but also because of the baffling, unhittable curveball for which they each became famous for. Kershaw is one of the most accomplished pitchers, age 25 and under, in baseball history. Along with his Cy Young Award, he's led the majors in ERA each of the past two seasons. He led the National League in strikeouts in 2011, and finished second in the NL last season (229).
Only one honor, however, moved the talented lefty to the brink of an emotional breakdown. It happened last October in Detroit at the World Series. He was presented with the Roberto Clemente Award, baseball's highest off-the-field honor, given each year to a player for significant humanitarian and charitable work.
Kershaw looked at Ellen upon receiving the award and began to get choked up.
"Ellen, thank you," he said to his wife. "She did a whole lot for this."
His eyes teared up. He paused to gather himself.
"It just means a lot," he said. "So thank you very much."
Later, talking to reporters after he had gotten his emotions in check, Kershaw explained, "Winning an award like this means more to me than any individual award I could ever achieve."
The average age of the previous Roberto Clemente Award winners has been 35, usually veterans who had spent years working on charitable causes that often extend to their post-baseball career. At 24, Kershaw was the youngest to win the award. It's a testament to the difference he's made in the lives of kids, but it also shows the rarity of someone as young as Kershaw having such a firm understanding on what's really important.
Breaking the Cycle
Hope's story is all too common in Zambia. For generations, kids have battled the HIV/AIDS epidemic, scraping to get by. Kershaw's foundation, Kershaw's Challenge, aims to "break the cycle" in Zambia and provide children with education, nutritious meals, and a roof over their heads. That first roof is The Arise Home, in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia.
Kids at The Arise Home will stay there until they graduate high school, and Arise Africa will help them apply to universities or trade schools to help set them up for future jobs. There are currently eight kids living there, and there is room for more. The Kershaws hope this is the first of many homes in Zambia.
As impressive as his work in Zambia has been, Kershaw's good deeds go well beyond The Arise Home. He began charitable work in Los Angeles and Dallas almost as soon as he arrived in the big leagues.
In Los Angeles, Kershaw's Challenge works with the Peacock Foundation, which provides at-risk youth with mental health services, including learning to care for rescued animals as part of group therapy. In Dallas, Kershaw's Challenge teams with Mercy Street, a ministry in West Dallas that provides youth services such as mentoring and sports programs. Helping disadvantaged children is at the heart of Kershaw's work in Africa, Los Angeles, and Dallas. "I've been fortunate to be able to start playing baseball professionally and [rise to] the big league level at an early age," Kershaw said upon winning the Roberto Clemente Award. "I'm so thankful for that. With that comes a great platform to do stuff off the field. I'm fortunate I got a great start in L.A. and started to do stuff off the field almost immediately."
Legacy is not the sort of word often applied to 25 year olds. Yet Kershaw, so accomplished on the field and even more so off it, already has a legacy. He is one of the best pitchers in baseball, and one who is making an even bigger impact without a baseball in his hand. His legacy is right there in Hope's smile, and those of the many children who will follow her at The Arise Home.
"Baseball is just something we've been given," Kershaw said. "It's a God-given talent. There are a lot of responsibilities that come with that. You need to find what you're passionate about off the field. I'm passionate about baseball and I love it. But off-the-field stuff means more."
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Kershaw encourages kids to find creative ways to raise money for charity. You can ask adults to pledge money for your accomplishments, whether it be in sports, school, or whatever you love to do. "Donate an hour of your time to community service for every book you read, or donate $1 for every goal you score in soccer," Kershaw says. "No matter how old you are, it's never too early to start giving back." See examples of how others are helping at www.kershawschallenge.com/whats-your-challenge.
Photos: Ann Higginbottom, Robert Beck/Sports Illustrated