Host family is key to a Stingers' summer
Jake Stinnett, a native Californian pitching for the Stingers, had never experienced a tornado before.
Luckily, his host family, Jamie and Amy Berskow, had prepared him.
"Having lived in Willmar for a while, they knew what to do during huge thunderstorms and tornado watches, two things I had never seen before," Stinnett said.
For Stingers players living in town for the 2½-month Northwoods League season, host families are invaluable for housing the players and helping them adjust to Willmar.
Host families are families in the Willmar area who provide room and board for a Stingers player for the entire summer.
Stingers players come to Willmar around Memorial Day and stay with the family through mid-August.
Deb Van Buren is the voluntary host-family coordinator for the Stingers. She interviews families, typically those with kids and an extra bedroom and bathroom, and places players with a family for the summer.
She said the families must be willing to invest in the lives of the ballplayers all summer long.
"The most important thing about a host family is they're supportive of the program and the players," Van Buren said. "They're kind of the lifeline of the summer."
The Berskows are in their first year of the program.
Jamie said they decided to host a player after talking to other families who did it last year.
"It sounded like a great opportunity to get more involved," Jamie said. "We enjoy going to the games even more with a vested interest, having someone living with you who's playing in the game."
Stinnett said it's been amazing staying with the Berskows.
"I couldn't have asked for a nicer group of people to spend my summer with," he said.
"Jamie and Amy were always looking out for me and they always made sure I was comfortable at their home."
Stinnett said he especially enjoyed spending time with the Berskows' two girls, Abby, 10, and Carlie, 8, during the summer.
"They looked at me and treated me like their big brother, making me feel right at home all the time," Stinnett said.
"I think it's going to be the hardest on them when he leaves when the season is over," Jamie said.
Some relationships that families develop with players extend beyond the Stingers' season.
Annette and Art Benson are hosting Stingers' pitcher Tanner Banks. They got involved in the program last season when they hosted another pitcher, Jacob Barnes.
Annette said they became good friends with Barnes and have since traveled around the country to see him play.
They traveled to Florida to see Barnes play college ball, and they've followed him as he's started his pro career as well.
Barnes was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 14th round of the 2011 Major League Baseball draft.
He was assigned to the Brewers' single-A Pioneer League club in Helena, Mont. Annette and her son drove to Montana to watch him play over the Fourth of July.
"We've been very fortunate. We've had great guys staying with us," Annette said. "It's been fun to watch the games when you know somebody that's playing."
Van Buren said every player who has returned to Willmar for a second year with the Stingers has requested to stay with the same family.
"That's a real indicator that the host families are doing a great job of following them and supporting them," she said. "Once you're a host family you're always a host family."