A January trip to the Dominican Republic provided Chris and Jill Davis a homecoming of sorts, a return to a country neither had visited since Chris played in the Dominican Winter League in 2010. It also laid the groundwork for the Orioles first baseman and his wife to make a global impact amid a pandemic that would shut down baseball two months later.
The visit was in partnership with Compassion International, a Christian humanitarian nonprofit focused on helping children in poverty, to see firsthand the impact of some of their previous donations to the organization. After coming home, the Davises decided to make a donation specifically to Compassion’s efforts in the Dominican, but with the coronavirus pandemic leaving thousands of children in need, they’ve redirected their $1 million gift to Compassion’s “Fill the Stadium” initiative.
“When I found out how many people and how many kids specifically were going to be affected by this — Jill and I had been talking about doing something globally on a large scale,” Chris told The Baltimore Sun, “and I feel like God just really put this on our hearts, in our lives.”
Much like the cancellations it prompted throughout sports, the pandemic canceled about 1,200 events Compassion had planned to connect children and sponsors. Typically, the organization serves more than 2 million children in 25 countries, but the lost events left 70,000 children unsponsored. Some athletes who work with the organization pointed out that the figure is about the number of seats in an NFL arena, and with the virus keeping fans out of most sports venues, Compassion hoped those who would normally spend hundreds on tickets, concessions and merchandise to attend games might instead support the children in need. Other athletes involved in Fill the Stadium include former Super Bowl Most Valuable Player Nick Foles, Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins and Arizona Diamondbacks shortstop Nick Ahmed.
“In a time when stadiums are empty, it’s a stadium’s worth of children,” said Ken McKinney, Compassion’s Director of Pro Athlete Partnerships. “It’s a stadium-sized problem, and you can imagine 70,000 kids right now in need. So we’ve come up with this idea, let’s fill the stadium, and that means raising support really just to stand in the gap for these families to get through the COVID crisis.”
The Davises’ gift will support 2,000 families, as every $500 provides a year’s worth of food, hygiene products and COVID-19 medical screenings to a child and his or her family. In many communities where Compassion operates, workers make only enough money in a day to buy food for that night, then repeat the process, but the pandemic has caused the jobs, the markets, and sometimes both, to dry up, McKinney said.
The World Bank estimates that the pandemic could push as many as 115 million people worldwide into extreme poverty in 2020 alone, while a recent study from the United Nations Children Fund and others found that pandemic-related hunger could cause 10,000 child deaths every month.
McKinney is unsurprised by the Davises’ desire to curtail that through Fill the Stadium.
“Just getting to know them, they’ve really had a crisis-response focus,” he said, pointing to their involvement in Compassion’s efforts regarding Burkina Faso, Rwanda and the Rohingya crisis.
The Davises began supporting Compassion shortly after Chris was traded from the Texas Rangers to Baltimore in 2011. They started by sponsoring a handful of children, sending them gifts and letters and getting notes and pictures in return.
“After we had, like, seven or eight kids, finally Compassion was like, ‘OK, we should probably get to know these people a little bit,’ ” Chris said.
That led to involvement in larger projects and eventually the trip to the Dominican, after which they sponsored a child there. They had planned to visit West Africa this offseason to meet several of their other children before the pandemic canceled those plans for the time being.
“They really want to continue to use the resources that they’ve been able to build to really make a massive impact in the world,” McKinney said. “He’s had tremendous success, and it’s put them in the position that they’re in. What they’re doing off the field is more the definition of who they are. It reflects really who they are at the core. They see what they have as something that they’ve been entrusted with and they want to use to help others.”
Chris, 34, is the oldest and longest-tenured member of the rebuilding Orioles’ roster, having signed a seven-year, $161 million contract after a 2015 season in which he won his second home run title in three years. During that contract, though, he has struggled, with an overall batting line of .196/.291/.379. In 2020, a season shortened to 60 games because of the pandemic, Davis went homerless, batted .115 and ended the season on the injured list because of left knee tendinitis that has required physical therapy this offseason.
But that hasn’t stopped Davis from making an impact away from the field. He was the Orioles’ nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award, which recognizes a player’s humanitarian efforts, each year from 2017 to 2019. Last offseason, he and Jill, a former children’s nurse, made a record $3 million donation to the University of Maryland Children’s Hospital for a hybrid catheterization suite that will be named for one of their three daughters, Evie.
“Obviously, we try to do as much as we can locally, in Baltimore and the Dallas-Fort Worth area, but when you get to really step back and look at the global scale and see the impact that you’re having on that big of a stage, it’s pretty humbling,” Davis said. “It’s easy to sit at home and take for granted all the blessings that we have, but when you really look at other places throughout the world, you see there are a lot of places that there are people living in devastation, people living in hurt and people just living in need.
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“You realize that they don’t get to pick and choose where they’re born, who they’re born to, what circumstances they’re born in, so when you have a chance to help somebody who’s in need, you jump at the chance.”