- - Sunday, June 17, 2018

At 16, Nationals pitcher Sammy Solis made a journey to South Africa with his parents and four siblings that few American families pursue.

“We wanted them to appreciate what they had and sometimes that is hard when you never leave the United States,” said Bob Solis, his father. “I had just finished a book about South Africa and the AIDS crisis.”

Moved by what he had read, Bob Solis took his family to visit an orphanage in Johannesburg, where the remnants of apartheid were still evident. Some of the orphans had been abandoned after being diagnosed with AIDS.

“I was a freshman in high school,” said Solis of that first trip in 2004. “I didn’t know what I was getting into. I did not know what to expect. You are thinking (South Africa) was a rundown place. But in reality, it was like here (in America). There are good and bad areas.”

His parents, including mother Sallie, kept in touch with the orphanage and a few months after the first trip decided to begin a home for children in South Africa.

“We left after 10 days and we (children) didn’t think anything about it. Behind the scenes my parents came back with heavy hearts,” said Solis, now 29.

“We came home and thought and prayed about it,” Bob Solis said.

Bob Solis, who like his son is Catholic, pitched at Notre Dame in the early 1980s (he even struck out slugger Matt Williams, the manager of the Nationals in 2014-15, three times in college). Bob Solis worked for two members of Congress, including Mo Udall of Arizona, and now is a financial planner for Morgan Stanley near Phoenix.

With their life savings, they bought a 70-acre farm in South Africa in 2005 that is now home to 58 children and young adults. Bob Solis visits three or four times a year and oversees a board of directors that runs Open Arms Home for Children.

Open Arms gets all of its financial support from North America, with no funds coming from the South African government.

“It began with one boy and a home. It has grown into this amazing thing,” Sammy Solis said. “My dad gets students from Notre Dame to go over and help for six months or a year. It is a really cool thing. It goes back to the core message of helping others. This has nothing to do with being Catholic. But it does have to do with helping others.”

Sammy Solis is the second youngest of five siblings.

His sister Lou Anne Greene returned to South Africa to work in the orphanage for two weeks in the summer when she was 19, then again in 2015 for the 10th-year anniversary of Open Arms. She now lives in California, works in the biotech industry and remembers her younger brother as an easygoing boy.

“He has always been fun-loving,” Greene said. “I talk to Sammy or text him nearly every day. He is hard-working, happy-go-lucky.”

He also has the gift of a left arm that can throw a baseball nearly 95 mph.

Solis was drafted in the second round out of the University of San Diego by the Nationals in 2010. He made it to the majors in 2015 while pitching in 18 games, then appeared in 37 games the next season and 30 last year. In games through Thursday he had pitched in a team-high 34 games this season and had an ERA of 3.47.

He’s also has made a few return trips to South Africa, but the Nationals pitcher admits the travel and commitment required to play in the majors limits his involvement in Open Arms. That may change, he said, once his playing career is over.

Solis said the annual budget for the orphanage is around $500,000 — which just happens to be about the major league minimum annual salary.

“I have been there a few times. I went three years ago. I have seen pictures, obviously,” said Solis, who once took Nationals gear for the children at the orphanage. “I would love, after baseball, to take a bigger role than that.”

Almost 15 years later, the impact of that 2004 trip continues to ripple through the lives of the Solis family — and in the lives of an ever-growing group of orphans.

To contribute to the Open Arms Home for Children, go to http.//www.openarmshome.com/pages/OnLine-Donations.cfm or email bob@openarmshome.com

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