Winter is vacation time for Major League players and the itineraries usually provide the weather and recreational facilities best suited for working on tans and golf games.
Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw isn't the usual ballplayer. Married in early December, Kershaw and wife Ellen have spent the days approaching Christmas preparing for a January mission to Africa.
The former Ellen Melson graduated in May from Texas A&M, and she's putting her degree in communications to the maximum benefit, spreading more than just the good word to orphans in Zambia, where two-thirds of the population lives below the national poverty line. This will be her fifth visit.
"The first time I hugged a Zambian orphan, it changed my life," said Ellen. "I've never been the same since then. You get hooked. Money is not their idol. They care about who you are. They see life from a greater perspective. I've tried to prepare Clayton for all of this. I just think it will be so cool for him, having been in L.A. a few years and the fast-paced lifestyle, to see what that part of the world is like.
"This is something I can do while Clayton is pursuing his passion of baseball. On this trip, our passions will collide. This is his way of showing that he supports me. Every season, I come back and show him pictures of all these girls and he's curious why I keep going back. My hope is that we can combine our two passions and utilize these opportunities to make a difference."
Kershaw said he's eager to join Ellen in her latest adventure and share her excitement, having shared his love of baseball with her.
"Ellen knows what baseball means to me," he said. "This is her passion. Obviously, I want to see it. I think it will be an eye-opening experience for me. It's a part of her life, something she believes in very strongly."
How was Ellen exposed to this faraway land and its great challenges?
Naturally, through Oprah Winfrey.
"My first memory was when I was about 10 years old watching an Oprah special on Africa," Ellen said. "It was crazy, I just fell in love with the kids and the country before I knew where it was. So I wanted to go, but I was terrified. It took a huge leap of faith to go. I had never been out of the country, never had been on a mission trip. I was 18 and I just jumped on a plane with a mission organization."
Kershaw said the goal of that mission was to talk about Christianity. Ellen said she took that initial venture to another level.
"It's my passion to go and have personal relationships with the kids," she said. "My heartbeat is relational ministry. I want to establish a deep relationship with them and share the Bible in a more meaningful, personal way.
"It's a daunting task, to beat poverty. I want to hear their stories. They don't have people to talk to them, to inspire them. There are 50 kids that I meet with who never knew their parents. It's empowering for them to know that somebody believes in them. That is as significant as sending them money or trying to change a government. There have been girls I've known for almost five years. I'm like family to them. We write letters. I'm a grown up in their lives. I try to make them believe they can do it, that the sky's the limit for them, that they haven't been totally neglected."
When Kershaw was 18, he was drafted in the first round by the Dodgers, signing for a $2.3 million bonus and bypassing college. When Ellen was an 18-year-old college freshman, she took her first trip to Zambia. The upcoming trip is sponsored by a new Dallas-based non-profit group (AriseAfrica.org) started by her friends.
"I really do want to make it my life's work," Ellen said. "It would be a dream come true to arrange a trip with players and wives so they can see what I see. We're going to help build a school and Clayton's going to give baseball lessons to these kids who have no idea what baseball is."
When the 22-year-old Kershaw returns, he'll be heading to Spring Training as the ace of a loaded rotation, coming off the best season of his three-year career with 13 wins and a 2.91 ERA. He said he's been throwing for a month.
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.