“Sports has the power to change the world… it has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sports can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.”
– Nelson Mandela
As many as seven Major League Baseball players hail from tiny Curaçao (population: 150K) in 2014 representing the highest per capita ratio of MLB players in the world… higher than the Dominican Republican, Puerto Rico, Cuba and Venezuela. So Thakaidzwa “Thakai” Doran (34), former Chairman of FEBEKO (Curaçao’s Baseball Federation) and Sports Product Developer at SEDREKO (Curaçao’s Physical Education Foundation), has good reason to believe that Curaçao’s youth is naturally endowed with world-class athletic ability. Unfortunately half of the island’s youth grows up in poverty, with little access to proper physical education, and therefore fail to develop their potential.
Doran decided to take matters into his own hands in 2012 by founding an after school program, Bandabou Tigers Baseball Academy, to provide “coaching, healthy diet, discipline and structure” as well as “access to materials and sport facilities” to boys ages 6-21 who live in the Tera Korá region of Bandabou. The Bandabou Tigers are led by former Boston Red Sox pitcher Dennis Neuman (24), who serves as part-Social Worker (diagnosing learning disabilities and counseling on personal issues), part-Baseball Coach, part-scout for the Boston Red Sox (!) as well as PhysEd teacher at Kolegio Annie Koenraad. With the support of several private sector sponsors (Maduro & Curiel’s Bank, SOAB, Spigt Dutch Caribbean, Panaderia Isa, Snack Pack), six coaches including Neuman (Johannes “Didi” Gregorius Sr., father of Arizona Diamondback Mariekson “Didi” Gregorius, Juvenal Leonora, Cley Wernet, Jeremy Lucas, Lino Nicolas who’s still going strong at 70!) as well as administrative supporters Joseline “Keke” Girigorie and Anthony Jamanica, Doran was able to expand the program to 75 boys over the past 2 years.
Doran completed 2 bachelor’s degrees in Hotel Management and Sport Management in the Netherlands and credits competitive swimming from the ages of 8-14 with developing his strong work ethic and sense of discipline. He also played competitive basketball for many years and still plays to this day. “Sports is the common thread; sports shaped my character from a young age in a significant way. I want to give others access to the same positive, formative experience.”
Doran set out to work in Sports Management when he first moved back to Curaçao in 2008 but found it challenging to find employment due to lack of understanding of the ins and outs of sport professionalism on the island, so he ended up teaching Physical Education at Colegio Juan Pablo Duarte for 2 years. This unplanned experience proved to be a blessing in disguise: “PhysEd is unlike other subjects (Math, Language, Social Studies etc)… my students would hang around the gym, open up, tell me stories about their personal lives. Most were latchkey kids with no father figure, so they gravitated towards me.” Doran decided to take his involvement with the students one step further: organizing after-school soccer, volleyball, softball and basketball competitions. But he made participation contingent on good class behavior and performance. “I would check up on my student athletes every 2 months… turns out their grades improved!”
Nowadays Doran cops to being a bit of a workaholic. In fact, his current day job managing 4 Curoil gas stations and overseeing 15 employees keeps him occupied at least 10 hours a day during the week. He attributes his success to strong communication and multitasking skills, his team of 6 coaches and a administrative staff of volunteers, meticulous planning, and last but not least, a ‘don’ for (private sector) fundraising. Doran also has a serious knack for creating awareness through social media, be sure to follow Akademia di Beisbol Bandabou Tigers on Facebook.
On the weekends Doran is in Bandabou with his Tigers, often with his toddler in tow. “It has been absolutely exhilarating to watch them improve over the past 1-2 years.” Doran is confident he’ll put more Curaçao Boys on the Major League Baseball rosters in the coming years. (We’re keeping our fingers crossed!) But he realizes that most of his boys won’t be lucky enough to find their way to the professional leagues and that’s OK, “I want to expose them to career alternatives; there are multiple ways of making a living beyond doctor, lawyer, architect, politician… If they’re passionate about sports, they can choose become professional players, coaches, gym teachers, sport administrators etc.”
In addition to the Bandabou Tigers after-school program, Doran has also co-organized three 1-week-long Baseball Campsheld during school vacations with Johnny Balentina, who competed in three consecutive Summer Olympics for the Netherlands. The next Baseball Camp will be held October 6 – 10 2014.