When the Washington Nationals clinched their first-ever Major League Baseball World Series championship on Oct. 30, the entire Washington, D.C., metropolitan area seemed to get caught up in the delirium that ensued.
Fans cheered and chanted in the streets for hours after the 6-2 victory over the Houston Astros.
They gathered at Dulles International Airport a day later to greet the team on its return home and followed the players’ triumphant antics on social media throughout the weekend, culminating in a wild evening watching the Capitals beat the Calgary Flames on Nov. 3.
A handful of Fairfax County students, however, got an especially close view of the celebration as participants in the Nationals’ 2019 victory parade down Constitution and Pennsylvania Avenues in D.C. on Nov. 2.
Fort Belvoir Elementary School was one of at least 11 schools that the Nationals invited to walk in the parade as part of the organization’s Grand Slam Schools education initiative. The school sent 30 students and their families, who were accompanied by some staff members, including Principal Margo Dias Pareja.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Pareja said. “The kids were able to see the players up close. They were able to get their baseball hats autographed. You were able to get a sense of just the scale of how important this type of a win was to the city of Washington and the surrounding area.”
The Nationals describe the Grand Slam Schools initiative as an adopt-a-school style program focused on science, technology, engineering, and math education, along with student attendance and support for individual school needs.
The program started with 10 D.C. public schools but expanded last year to include more than 6,000 students from 15 schools in D.C. and Montgomery County.
Fort Belvoir Elementary School became Fairfax County’s first school to receive the Grand Slam School designation this past spring after school administrators met with the team’s community relations department to discuss joining the initiative in the April or May timeframe.
According to Pareja, that meeting was organized by Fort Belvoir Garrison Commander Col. Michael Greenberg, who had contacted the Nationals to discuss potential ways to collaborate.
The Nationals primarily center their community outreach efforts on military service members and their families, youth baseball and softball, and education, interests that intersect when it comes to Fort Belvoir Elementary School, which is located on a U.S. Army installation and serves military families.
As a Grand Slam School, Fort Belvoir received 2,000 tickets from the Nationals for students and their families to attend baseball games.
Teachers at Fort Belvoir receive professional development that encourages them to find ways to use baseball to help students learn math and science.
“Any time you can make that real-world connection for kids, it helps them to learn the content in a deeper way and in a more meaningful way,” Pareja said.
That includes training at the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy, the sports school that the team runs in D.C. to support character development, health, and academic achievement in youth from local underserved communities.
The training mostly involved staff from Fort Belvoir’s upper school, which encompasses grades four through six, since the curriculum is geared toward older students. A third-grade teacher and a math coach from the primary school, which includes preschool, kindergarten, and first through third grade, also participated.
Along with helping the elementary school, the Nationals have supported the larger Fort Belvoir community by funding improvements for the local baseball fields and purchasing uniforms for the Little League teams.
Major League Baseball also sponsored a free baseball clinic on Oct. 26 that attracted about 200 children from the public schools as well as the base’s child development centers, which are open to children up to 12 years old.
While there were no players present, since the Nationals were playing in the World Series that day, participants met with other staff members from the organization to learn techniques for batting, throwing, and running the bases. They each also got a T-shirt and a hat.
Pareja says Fort Belvoir administrators did not learn that the school would be able to participate in the World Series championship parade until Oct. 31.
Teachers then nominated students who they thought would be interested in attending based on their enthusiasm for the team, as evidenced by anything from how much they talk about baseball to wearing Nationals paraphernalia or even dressing up as players for Halloween.
Because the school could only bring 30 students, 15 each from the primary and upper schools, the final parade participants were chosen from the teachers’ nominees through a random lottery system.
“The kids we picked...many of them had gone for Halloween dressed as Nationals players, so you know, [they] really have a love of baseball and a love of the Nationals,” Pareja said. “It was great for them to be able to participate in this, and they were beyond thrilled.”
Fort Belvoir Elementary School is working on expanding its partnership with the Nationals by joining its Fun at Bat initiative, a program that the team does with USA Baseball to introduce kids to youth sports.
As part of the initiative, the Nationals will donate physical education equipment and help train Fort Belvoir physical education instructors on how to teach baseball to students.
Pareja believes that having this kind of bond with a local professional sports organization is particularly meaningful for a school like Fort Belvoir, where students frequently move to and from different places with their families.
“That sense of having a connection to the place where you are, I think, sports teams and particularly baseball and the Nationals have really become that for our community,” Pareja said. “The whole community, even if they’re not from here, and most of them are not from here, are able to get behind the Nationals and are so appreciative of the support that they have shown our community and our schools in particular.”