Wednesday, July 25, 2007

You can go home again

Post 104 standout Dennis Schoonmaker spent the spring in the Philippines, volunteering at the orphanage he left over 17 years ago

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Dennis Schoonmaker loves to play baseball. He’s done it nearly full-time since the age of 6, and he had opportunity to play this past spring for one of the nation’s top Division III junior college teams, Montgomery College-Germantown, a squad that could have used his various abilities during a busy schedule, which included a trip to the NJCAA College World Series in May.

But Schoonmaker, 19, a key member of the Gaithersburg Post 104 American Legion baseball team, which won the county title on Sunday and will advance to the state tournament beginning Friday, didn’t play baseball this spring. What kept him off the field until late May (and the American Legion season) was an offer he couldn’t refuse.

More specifically, a chance to return to his roots in the Philippines where Schoonmaker, a Wootton High graduate, spent the first 16 months of his life before being adopted by John and Mary Schoonmaker of Rockville.

‘‘It was an idea my parents threw up in the air at the beginning of the year,” Schoonmaker said. ‘‘I didn’t take it serious until the end of the first semester [at MC-Germantown]. I was saving up money [and] my parents helped out a lot.”

Schoonmaker didn’t travel to the Philippines as part of a vacation, however. He hooked up with the Children Center of Cebu, the same orphanage he resided in for those initial 16 months, to perform volunteer missionary work

While in Cebu from February through March, Schoonmaker performed a variety of tasks, including cooking, cleaning, teaching English, making arts and crafts and coaching two baseball teams.

‘‘It was definitely an eye-opener,” he said. ‘‘It hits you in your face and puts things in perspective. We had T-ball practice once and we had to go inside the building because there was gun fire a couple of blocks away. And hearing all the stories in the shelter — some people could not stomach some of those stories.”

The missionary orphanage supplied Schoonmaker with an off-site apartment about 10-15 minutes away by foot or shorter by taxi cab, the main mode of transportation in Cebu. He also received a crash course in the local language — the Cebauno dialect — which helped him avert larger-than-anticipated charges when spending money.

‘‘After a few weeks, I picked up the language,” Schoonmaker said. ‘‘Once, after learning I was an American, the [taxi] driver turned off the meter and told me it was way more than it should have been. I threw him 10 pesos and jumped out of the car. Parts of the country, you don’t want to be in but the island I was on was probably one of the biggest tourist areas, but you don’t want to go wandering off.”

The province of Cebu, created on March 10, 1917, is located in Central Visayas, which is in the center of the Philippine archipelago, and it has a population over 2.6 million people spread across its 48 towns. It produces several agricultural products, especially corn, and is rich in minerals, including copper.

Mary Schoonmaker said the shelter was built by ‘‘Christian missionaries out of Minnesota” and ‘‘they’ve been there since the 1980s. It holds 60-80 kids so it’s not considered large. We adopted [Dennis] in 1989. We were probably one of the first families [to adopt children in the Philippines].”

Speaking of family, Schoonmaker trekked across open waters for 12 hours to reunite with his birth mother, an experience he thought was unlikely upon leaving for Cebu.

‘‘It was a really old, rickety boat with 20 bunk beds I had to fit myself on,” he said. ‘‘It was a big boat but I had to sit on a 5 1⁄2-by-3-foot bed. I’m about 6 feet tall. It was like a really bad summer camp.

‘‘The social worker from the shelter helped work out the meeting. There are no such things as addresses in the Philippines. It took about two weeks to find her. I was really skeptical about it but I was told it was an option ... so I decided to do it.

‘‘It was a little difficult because she didn’t speak any English. I had a translator with me. It’s weird to see somebody who looks like you that you don’t know.”

The entire experience had a profound impact on Schoonmaker, one that has been seen by his parents, his former high-school coach at Wootton, Joe Cassidy (now the Whitman High baseball coach), and his current legion coach, Joe Stolz.

‘‘He really benefited from the trip,” Cassidy said. ‘‘He really matured. He came back with a lot more confidence.”

Stolz added: ‘‘He told me it changed his perspective on life. He’s a really fine person, a good young man.”

And he’s a good young baseball player. Despite missing the college season and suffering a shoulder injury to his right, throwing arm in May, Schoonmaker has excelled this summer with Post 104 (20-11). Logging time mostly at designated hitter, while resting this strained right shoulder, Schoonmaker has helped lead Gaithersburg to its fist state tournament appearance since 2001. In his 23 games of action, Schoonmaker, a slugging catcher who can also play either corner infield position and pitch, batted .306 (22 for 72) with two home runs, 16 runs batted in and 14 runs scored. He also pitched 5 2⁄3 innings, striking out seven while allowing three earned runs for a 3.71 earned-run average in four appearances.

During the team’s championship run last week — Post 104 swept all three of its opponents — Schoonmaker drove in the game-winning run against Gaithersburg Post 295 last Tuesday to start the impressive run. He knocked in another run in Gaithersburg’s 9-1 championship win over Damascus Post 171 Sunday at Damascus Regional Park.

‘‘It took me a little while to get back into it but I pushed through it,” said Schoonmaker, who missed parts of three-plus weeks because of the shoulder strain.