Here’s another story from the Wilson Times, this was in September of 2013.

I went out to the school that day looking to do a quick column on something I spotted at a match earlier in the week. The team had a jersey at the end of the bench that they laid out on a chair to be part of the team.

I had a freelance photographer quickly snap a photo of it and put it in the memory bank during the match.

I asked a player about it, and got a much-longer than expected story about it. I assumed it was for a fallen teammate or injured player. Nope. Instead, Carmen’s jersey had a great back story that became a big feature that ended up winning a NCPA…

A member of the team …

Barton columnCarmen-000

Photo credit: Sheldon Vick

A member of the team

Lady Demons’ have extra player in Carmen from the Dominican Republic

A No. 7 jersey sits at the end of the Fike volleyball team’s bench every game.

On the back is the name Carmen.

It’s a first name. And there is no last name.

The jersey belongs to a member of the Lady Demons’ squad who will never spike, bump, dig or serve a ball in a game. It will be there until Senior Night in 2014.

That’s when Carmen, a teenager from the Dominican Republic that touched the hearts of Fike coach Cassie Blackmon and three of her players on a sports missionary trip they took in June, will don her jersey and get a special night with her American teammates.

“It’ll be a special night,” Blackmon said.

“I can’t wait,” junior Rachel Garrou admitted. “It’ll be hard waiting.”

SPORTS MISSION

Kenny Dickerson liked what he saw from the Lady Demons under Blackmon’s leadership.

While officiating one of the team’s matches in 2011, the founder of SEAM (Sports Evangelism and Mission), asked the Fike coach if she would be interested in organizing a trip with some of her players to the Dominican Republic.

“Of course,” Blackmon remembers telling him.

Two years later, Blackmon took five players — Fike juniors Garrou, Kendall Reaves and the graduated Laura Bland and two from Wayne County: Morgan Foss and Carly Hightower — on a plane for a weeklong trip that changed their lives.

“When I take groups to these foreign countries,” Dickerson explained, “they tend to think they are going to go and bless these poor people. Instead, it is they who end up being blessed.”

MORE THAN THE BEACH

Coming back to Wilson suntanned and smiling ear-to-ear, the typical question Reaves got this summer after she completed her voyage to the tiny island country in the Caribbean was — “How was the beach?”

The junior quickly explained that her trip was far more than just an excuse to escape to paradise.

“We went to the beach twice, and it was for maybe an hour each time,” she said. “A lot of people were like ‘Oh, you just went to the beach with all the pretty water and sand.’ And we were like ‘No. There was a reason behind why we went.

“And it something that has turned into something way bigger than I thought it would.”

Hearing those words come from her player made the hard work and sacrifices to be able to afford the trip — which cost nearly $2,000 for each player — worth it to Blackmon. In the DR, the group visited orphanages, volunteered at a child-care center, donated volleyball equipment and, of course, played a little volleyball.

Sometimes, the games were against powerful locals.

“One game, the front line had players who were 6-foot-7, 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-5,” Dickerson said. “These are very good teams.”

But other times, the games were much different.

“One game, we played with caution tape,” Blackmon said. “The tape was the net. It was attached to two trees. And I bet you that was the best game they played all week.”

SOMEONE SPECIAL

Blackmon explained to her players that she wanted them to be observa nt. To be on the lookout for someone special.

“I had talked to them about it,” she said. “Go and see throughout the week, see if you can find one girl that you really can relate to. I guess, someone that you feel like you want to help. I mean, you have to want to help someone; make them part of our team. And then, as soon as I saw that girl, who I would find out was Carmen, I knew she was the one.

“I heard that she loved volleyball and she didn’t even know we were a volleyball team up to that point. So I went ahead and talked to the girls and said ‘Look, here is her story. What do you think?’ And they said ‘Coach, she’s the one!’”

Standing off to the side, watching games being play, Carmen stood out.

Blackmon and Dickerson went over first. Through an interpreter they found out about her past.

“She was orphaned at 5 years old,” Blackmon said. “Her parents pretty much up and abandoned her. She then lived in an orphanage, but it wasn’t good for her. This lady, that is now her mom — along with 30 other kids — took her in. Now, it’s just them. She said they pretty much rely on God to provide everything.”

Dickerson said Carmen didn’t have a chance to make it to the “Volleyball Palace”, where the best players in the DR are selected to go and play for a chance to make the National Team, which won a silver medal at the most recent Pan-Am Games. The United States won the gold.

“And our girls see Carmen, this 17-year-old girl with a huge smile, loves to play volleyball and will never have a chance to go to the ‘Palace’ due to her circumstances,” Dickerson said. “She is just completely content. And after they met her, as we drove back all they wanted to know was about her. They just wanted to go back the next day and talk to her some more.”

‘I WANT NO. 7’

The girls got their chance.

“When we sat down with her and told her she was going to be a part of our team, we had just finished praying with the lady who ran the orphanage. It was really emotional and we were already choked up,” Garrou said. “We talked with her, she could speak a little bit of English, and you could tell she was just so excited and she felt honored.

“Really, it was us that felt honored.”

Blackmon then asked Carmen what number jersey she would want.

“I want No. 7!” Blackmon recalled Carmen’s answer.

Would this be an issue, Blackmon wondered. It was Garrou’s number – since she started playing in middle school.

She got her answer in a flash as Garrou started crying and nodded yes to her coach.

“As a coach to see how my players react to stuff like that, it really touched me,” Blackmon said.

Added Garrou: “When she said seven, at first it didn’t even register with me that it was my number. Then I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I wear that number.’ But it wasn’t even second nature to me to say ‘Of course she can have my number. They have nothing, and she has come up as this beautiful woman who is so strong. I’m honored that she’ll be wearing it.”

A LONG WAIT

Back in the U.S., things are back to normal for Garrou, Reaves and Blackmon.

Fike’s volleyball season got off to a bumpy star t with a 3-0 loss to D.H. Conley in its opener, but the Lady Demons have done nothing but win since.

Before the team’s first home game against Beddingfield, Blackmon and Garrou addressed the fans. They explained who Carmen was, and why it was so important for them to have the No. 7 jersey with “Carmen” on the back with them always.

“On Senior Night next year,” Garrou told the crowd. “She’ll be here with us. And you’ll for yourselves.”

Until then, the three who have met her, write Carmen letters of encouragement. So do the players who haven’t met her. She has indeed become a vital part of the team.

“Carmen has brought us together tremendously,” Blackmon said. “And I have seen a big change in them. Responsibility, more caring. They think more about others than themselves. They want to do more as a team, and they bond more. I don’t see a lot of worrying about the little, petty stuff. It’s truly amazing.”

Reaves said her last message to Carmen was personal.

“I wrote that I miss you, and I wish you could be here with us,” Reaves said. “I am looking so forward to getting you over here next year for Senior Night. That’s what we’re all heading towards, that’s our goal.”

Blackmon said the lessons her team continues to learn from Carmen will stick with them always.

“With the trip, I wanted it to be about love,” she said. “I also wanted it to be something that we could do there, but also bring back here. Volleyball is something you play in high school and maybe in college. It ends.

“But life is about caring and loving other people, that’s w hat matters the most to me. Everything else will fall into place from there.”