For 11 months of the year, Deb Norcross stays busy working as a financial analyst, playing chauffeur for three active boys - Tyler, 12, Hunter, 11, and Parker, 8 - and juggling five schedules.
Despite her hectic life, the Forest Hill resident has opened her home and heart to two more boys every August for the past six years. She acts as a surrogate mother, providing them with transportation, meals, laundry service and entertainment.
She takes on the added responsibility because the positives far outweigh the negatives, she said.
"We have so much fun," said Norcross, 45. "We get very attached to the boys, and we meet other families. But the really great thing is the relationship that my kids have with the boys."
Norcross' is one of 100 families who participate in the host program for the Cal Ripken World Series. The host program was instituted in 1961 by the Babe Ruth League for the Bambino Division, which is now known as Cal Ripken Baseball.
Each year in August, 220 youths who play on 10 domestic teams and six international teams from South Korea, Japan, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Australia and Canada descend upon Aberdeen to compete at Ripken Stadium.
A schedule of events, practices and games is provided to each child. But more than that, they need a place to stay, where they can feel at home. And that's where the host families come into play.
The host families are the cornerstone of the World Series, said Cal Ripken Jr.
"Each year we have the opportunity to meet with teams, and we enjoy hearing about their incredible host family experiences," he said. "These memories are a tribute to those who are generous enough to offer their home, time and effort in return for the opportunity to build relationships that last a lifetime."
Typically the team members are housed in areas close together so that team activities can be planned.
Interested families submit an application and then undergo a background check and a home inspection. They must agree to house two or more players for about 10 days. The families also must provide meals, transportation to and from practices and games, wash their uniforms daily, and provide entertainment during down times.
Although the host families do not receive any payment, they receive donations from sponsors that include sports drinks, laundry detergent, gas and grocery cards, team T-shirts, restaurant gift certificates and preferred parking at the games.
After the host families are processed and approved, they attend meetings where they receive a book that explains how to deal with problems that might arise.
"We have been fortunate not to have any real problems," said Kath Fenzel, director of sales operations for Ripken Amateur Baseball, who is coordinating the host program. "But we get the families together and talk to them about things like homesickness, safety and nutrition."
However, the most important lessons come through experience, Norcross said.
"When I hosted boys the first year, I made one very important mistake," Norcross said. "I treated the boys like guests. I let them get away with things I don't let my sons get away with. Now I realize that they have to be treated like a member of the family."
In some cases, the parents of the team members accompany their children, but the players are housed in the homes of local families and their family members stay in hotels.
The hosts become the player's parents during their stay, Norcross said. Although some host parents don't get that at first, the parents of the children are supportive, she said.
"One year, one of the moms of one of the boys from Australia told me: 'Well, you're the mum, you tell them what to do,' " Norcross said.
The benefits of being a host family include developing lasting relationships with the players, learning about other cultures and meeting new families, she said. It's also a lot of good old-fashioned fun.
The fun starts when the boys arrive, Norcross said. The host parents meet the boys with lots of fanfare at Ripken Stadium. Each family makes banners and posters to welcome the youngsters.
The initial meeting is followed by a brief awkward silence on the car ride home, she said.
"They always want to go to Taco Bell on the way home," she said.
Bridging the cultural gap is a learning experience.
For starters, the boys are amazed by the variety of foods sold in U.S. grocery stores, Norcross said.
"The first time they go to the grocery store, their mouths drop open," she said. "I always take them with me, so they can pick out foods that they like. They are so funny. They laugh at the names of cereal, like Fruity Pebbles."
It's also winter in Australia when those players visit, so they are very fair-skinned, she said. "We go through a lot of sunscreen."
On days when they aren't playing a game or practicing, the host families plan activities. Norcross and the other families for team Australia host a pool party in Pennsylvania, a crab party, and they take the team and their family members to a major league baseball game, she said.
"We took them to see the Orioles and the Nationals," she said. "The Nationals gave each of the boys a box of goodies and let them go out on the field. That was so neat."
Despite the hard work and long hours, there are tears when the boys leave, Norcross said.
"You become so attached to them," Norcross said. "I could never do foster care. The boys leave us and go on to Disney World so they have something to look forward to. But we don't. It's bittersweet for us."
To volunteer to become a host family contact: Kath Fenzel, 410-823-0808 or firstname.lastname@example.org.