CLEVELAND -- The children who crowded around Justin Masterson throughout his recent trip to Africa did not know about baseball. In the impoverished slum he visited, it did not matter that he was a recognizable sports figure on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
All that mattered to the kids was that Masterson was there, and that is all that mattered for the pitcher, too.
"For me, it was great," Masterson said. "I loved that no one had a clue what baseball is. I'm just another big bald guy, hanging out and trying to impact their lives."
Masterson's journey to Mathare Valley in Nairobi, Kenya -- one of the largest slums in the country -- was a part of the "Feed Their Future" campaign that the Indians pitcher and his wife, Meryl, became involved with through the Bright Hope organization. Given the nature of the program, it seemed fitting that his trip to Africa fell within the same month as Thanksgiving.
As much as baseball has given Masterson, he continues to try to find ways to give back.
The goal of the "Feed Their Future" program was to raise $140,000. Masterson was thrilled to learn that the campaign raised more than $200,000, providing additional money to support school enrollment, grant scholarships for vocational colleges and help parents have enough funds for various needs.
"We surpassed our goal tremendously," Masterson said. "So we were able to use some of the money for scholarships. We got to meet some of the scholars from the past and some who will be affected by what we give. You hear the stories and the opportunities they've been given through the scholarships. Their life will be totally different.
"They're able to kind of work their way out of the valley. Some become teachers and sacrifice and come back to be a part of it. It's pretty neat."
Masterson chuckled as he recalled meeting a young woman who was using one of the past scholarships to study television and communications.
"She was actually the only person who knew what baseball was," Masterson said. "She had seen it in some movies."
Masterson spent a handful of days in Kenya among a traveling party of nine people. He toured sections of the Mathare Valley slum, which has an estimated 600,000 people in just three square miles, living without electricity and in shanties. Masterson stopped by a few schools -- including one in the Kariobangi district in Nairobi -- and spent time providing meals, interacting with kids and even gave a sermon at the Mathare Community Outreach church.
The son of a pastor, Masterson tried to keep his message simple.
"It seemed like the theme as we were there was encouragement," Masterson said. "They were just so excited that we came, just that we showed up. So my message was that we're in this together and we're all working together. I wanted it to be nice and simple and just give a message of hope. Each of us has something different to lead, but together we can really make a difference."
In December, Masterson will make a return trip to the Dominican Republic, where he has done work with the One Child Matters organization. During previous visits in the D.R., Masterson helped with the construction of buildings, a basketball court and a baseball field. Baseball is a part of life for the children Masterson has met and helped over the past few winters.
It was a much different situation in Africa, and one of Bright Hope's local partners, Dotun Modupe, tried to find a way to explain Masterson's celebrity to the children. Modupe, who served as a guide for Masterson's group while in Kenya, related Masterson to one of the soccer players the kids were more familiar with in Africa.
"At first, I wasn't really happy," said Masterson, who did not want anyone to feel he was more important than others in his group. "But his reasoning was to make them feel better about themselves. I said, 'OK, I guess that's a little better.'
"The biggest thing of why Dotun wanted to do that was for the people to feel almost extra special. It's something where, 'This guy took time out of his schedule to come hang out with us.' It was fun."
Masterson is just happy that baseball has helped create these kind of experiences.
"Even if I wasn't in baseball," Masterson said, "whatever job I would be doing, my goal would still be to go out and help people. Maybe it'd be just down the street, or to the inner city, which I also want to do now. Some would say you're given the platform so you can be witness to people who you wouldn't be witnessed to. The other part is, in one sense, the more money you make, the more lives you can impact.
"Not that you need the money to impact the lives, but it's neat when your job can fund your opportunities to go throughout the States and throughout the world to impact lives."