The summer following the ninth grade, Gardner Blackburn organized a used baseball equipment collection drive. He did it with the blessing of the Perrine Baseball and Softball Association. Now a senior at Palmetto High School, Blackburn has continued to collect the equipment to help kids who can’t afford their own baseball bats, gloves and cleats.
“I gather the equipment from a variety of sources,” he says. “From the park, and I have a connection with the Palmetto baseball team. I used to play in ninth grade. I was able to talk to the parents.”
As part of the project, he also sorted the equipment owned by the association to get rid of the things that could no longer be repaired.
“A lot of it involved cleaning up the equipment they already had,” he says. “I liked the project. It allowed me to stay in touch with baseball.”
When he is given a donation, he takes the equipment home, cleans it and makes repairs.
“If it meets safety standards, I donate it to the ballpark so they can distribute it,” he says.
As of the end of last spring, he had collected almost 100 pieces of athletic equipment, an excellent total considering the costliness for good gear.
“Baseball equipment is so expensive,” Blackburn says. “The average cost of a baseball bat is $200 to $300. You can easily take old bats that kids have, clean them up and put on new grips.”
Also, in order to play in leagues at certain parks, the equipment is required to be up to date.
“Most parks implemented new safety standards for baseball bats,” he says. “They are less powerful, but the new bats cost $300. The old bats were too powerful and too dangerous for players. It was a safety concern.”
Gardner can understand safety concerns. He had to stop playing after an injury in his first game at Palmetto.
“I had a fractured elbow and then a year of rehab,” he says. “The way my arm healed made me change my form.”
Blackburn no longer plays baseball, but he is still a competitor. It’s just that his new competitions deal with science, and not baseballs.
“I love science; that’s my favorite subject in general,” he says. “I have done the Envirothon in ninth, 10th and 11th grades. This year we got second place.”
He has also participated in a chemistry competition at Barry University and Environmental Immersion Days at Fairchild Tropical Garden. His love for the environment involves kayaking into the mangroves to clear out trash.
“I worked on a mangrove clean-up with the help of my sister, Rachel, at Chapman Field Park,” he says. “We took our kayaks and paddled around the mangroves to remove the trash lodged in the roots.”
Keeping the mangroves clean is important because they function as a filtering system for water going to the mainland. They also shelter small fish seeking safety from larger predators.
Blackburn plans to take over his sister’s mangrove clean-up community project now that she is headed to college. He doesn’t mind the work.
“It is fun to kayak around with your friends,” he says.
Blackburn says that when they work the clean-ups they clear out innumerable empty alcoholic beverage bottles and huge amounts of discarded Styrofoam, much of it from buoys that mark lobster traps.
“Styrofoam is magnetic to mangrove,” he says.
Blackburn has a year of high school left, but he says that when he starts college in 2015, he plans to major in biomedical engineering. He is considering applying to Johns Hopkins, Duke, Georgia Tech, Berkeley and the University of Florida, though he admits that Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are his dream schools.
By Linda Rodriguez Bernfeld