Charity work keeps Nationals prospect’s journey in perspective

Dave Nelson, former Washington Senator and Open Arms Board Member with Sammy Solis and Open Arms kids in 2014. (Courtesy Solis family)

 “I never look at the masses as my responsibility. I look at the individual. I can only love one person at a time.” — Mother Teresa

When Sammy Solis is having a rough go at it on the mound, he doesn’t have to think long to help put his troubles in perspective.

“Baseball is a game, not life or death,” said the 6-5 Washington Nationals pitching prospect.


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Despite a rough start to his season at Double-A Harrisburg (0-1 with a save and a 7.88 ERA) this year, the left-handed reliever knows his troubles are nothing like the problems of the children his family supports in an African orphanage for kids whose parents have AIDS.

“It’s a small, privately-funded organization that my parents run on their own with the help of a small board —and a lot of fundraising,” Solis said. “They fund raise on their own, they keep the website running on their own. It’s a lot of work, yet it’s very rewarding for them.”

The story began 11 years ago in 2004 when the Solis’ wanted to show their five children (two of whom are adopted) “how the other half lives.” So, the family flew to Africa for eight days and helped at a local orphanage.

“What we saw there really captured our hearts,” said Bob Solis, whose Open Arms Home celebrated its eighth anniversary in March. “We were seeing something we all were very uncomfortable with. It’s like a different planet in some ways.”

Guided by Mother Teresa’s principle of helping those you can, even if it affects just one life, the Solises cashed in the money they’d saved to pay off their home and instead bought a farm in Komga on the Eastern Cape. On that land they built an orphanage they named Open Arms Home. The orphanage houses 55 children who are cared for around the clock by a staff that has grown to 50 people. The home runs on a $700,000 yearly budget and is overseen by a 10-member board.

“God sure is writing interesting lines in this story,” said Bob Solis, who travels to Africa three times a year to check on the orphanage and visit with the kids.

Solis, 26, was a second-round pick by the Nationals in 2010. Initially projected to speed through the farm system because of his power sinker, Solis was slowed by an elbow injury in 2012 that required Tommy John surgery. After he returned a year later, he experienced shoulder fatigue. Last year, Solis dealt with back issues and elbow soreness that cost him a big chunk of the season. Despite making appearances at four levels in the farm system, he totaled just 18 innings.

Sammy Solis pitching for the Harrisburg Senators. (Courtesy Will Bentzel, Harrisburg Senators)
Sammy Solis pitching for the Harrisburg Senators. (Courtesy Will Bentzel, Harrisburg Senators)

“My professional career has been five seasons of ups and downs,” he said. “But it’s never hard to find the inspiration to keep my head up and keep moving forward.

Solis’ big break came in May when the Nationals surprised him with a call up direct from Harrisburg. With the big league bullpen in need of a boost with a fresh arm, Solis was on his way to make major league debut.

Solis was with the Nationals for five weeks, compiling a 1-0 record with a 5.00 ERA over five appearances. However, a few of the weeks were spent on the disabled list.

“I think a lot of guys would be down and very frustrated to deal with the injuries I’ve had to so far in my career,” Solis said. “But my life experiences help keep me grounded. I’ve been out to the orphanage twice now. To see where these kids came from and the stories they have, it just makes you feel so blessed.

“It makes you realize pretty quickly that there’s a lot more to life than your job of playing a game. It makes you feel so thankful that you can do something you love doing for a living and that you have friends and family always around to love and support you.”

During his last trip to visit the orphanage, Solis brought along his best friend, a former college teammate at the University of San Diego.

“The kids had a lot of fun playing two guys our size,” Solis said. “We had such a blast playing with them. It’s one thing to tell your friends what it’s all about at the orphanage – it sounds good as a story. But then you stay out there and see what day-to-day life is with these kids, it’s a stunning reality.”

“Yet, the kids at Open Arms are also blessed. Now, they all get to go to school. They all have a roof over their heads. Now, they have become friends and have developed a new family. There’s a huge soccer field for them to play on, tennis courts and a pool. It’s really grown into this wonderful community.”

Bob Solis with child at Open Arms. (Courtesy the Solis family)
Bob Solis with child at Open Arms. (Courtesy the Solis family)

In a short video on the organization’s website, Sammy Solis’ father, Bob Solis, breaks down the staggering truth about life in South Africa.

“About 23 percent of the African population is HIV positive,” he narrates. “In a country of about 45 million, you’re talking about millions of people who have HIV and AIDS. A lot are untreated, and that population is generally 20 to 40 year olds — people with children. As they pass on, they’re leaving hundreds of thousands of orphans with no place to go.”

When the elder Solis isn’t visiting Africa, he works full-time as a financial advisor at Morgan Stanley in Arizona. Yet, a bulk of his personal time is devoted to his “other job” — fundraising for the orphanage.

“The biggest challenge for me on a bad day is not complaining when my computer isn’t working or when my car breaks down,” Bob Solis said. “That’s a lot less than what these kids are working with — and often with a smile.

“That’s when I remind myself that I’m lucky to have a toilet.”

Above: Dave Nelson, former Washington Senator and Open Arms Board Member with Sammy Solis and Open Arms kids in 2014. (Courtesy Solis family)

Stephanie Storm Lariccia

Stephanie Storm Lariccia is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.