116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
SPRINGVILLE — One ball field is the true personification of the classic adage — if you build it, they will come.
Coach and educator Nate Sanderson did just that nine years ago, building a Wiffle ball field with a snow fence and makeshift bases, and players have been coming every season since in greater and greater numbers.
When Sanderson and his wife, Donita Sanderson, moved to their country home in Springville 11 years ago, there was no express demand for a Wiffle ball field. But with a little help from a group of athletes, they built it anyway in their backyard.
The ball field is a little more refined now. In 2014, they brought in a bulldozer, put down sod and built a wall. In the years since, they’ve built a playground, a gazebo and hung a scoreboard.
In the nine years since the Wiffle ball field started, it has raised more than $40,000 for local and international charities, some of which come back year after year for a substantial portion of their annual funding.
The field has raised more than $25,000 for the Springville Area Neighborhood Service and Information (SANSI), about $8,000 for the Coralville Food Pantry, and more than $3,000 for The Adventure Project, a nonprofit that provides works to end extreme poverty in Africa through job creation. It’s also raised $1,300 for a community project in Russia and $1,400 for another food pantry at the Springville United Methodist Church.
With smaller proportions than a baseball field, Wiffle ball fields are a relatively rare sight. But more than a place to play, Sanderson’s field has had an outsized impact.
“There are a lot of ways you can raise money, but there’s just not a Wiffle ball park on every corner or field in every park for that matter,” Nate Sanderson said. “In some ways, it is our investment into our community.”
With a little bit of faith, he built it simply hoping people would be interested. With an investment of roughly $40,000 over time, the Sanderson rule of thumb is to always make sure the field generates more than what it costs to maintain.
Since 2012, fundraisers at the field have become a staple for organizations. For the Coralville Community Food Pantry, it may not be the biggest fundraiser every year, but it’s one of the most engaging ones.
“Once you’re there, you realize how special it is,” said John Boller, executive director of the pantry.
Over the years, the nonprofit has moved away from event-based fundraisers because of the challenges in organizing them. But in some ways more valuable than raising dollars, he said their annual Step Up to the Plate tournament at the Wiffle ball field engages the community, raises awareness and brings folks into the fold who can later turn out to be long-term supporters.
“One thing about Nate is he loves to build community and bring people together,” Boller said. “This is an amazing channel for people to be able to do that.”
Other beneficiaries of the field have come to rely on the support they receive from it. For Springville Area Neighborhood Service and Information, about half of annual its funding comes from community fundraisers.
“We’ve come to depend on it as part of our budget,” said Janet Lentz, director of SANSI, which runs a food pantry and provides aid for necessities like utilities and gasoline. “It’s very important to us to have that every year.”
For both organizations, the need has increased in the last few years. That’s something the ball field has managed to do with ease — filling heavy community needs in a lighthearted way.
Inspired by baseball player Patrick Murphy, who built a model of Fenway Park to raise millions for charity, the Sandersons have incorporated influences from other ball fields.
In right field is a 16-foot Green Monster modeled after the popular target wall for right-handed hitters in Boston’s Fenway Park. Ivy grows in right center field, similar to the way it does at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
As the number of players using the field has grown, so have business sponsorships for the largest annual event each Labor Day.
But another product of the field — a natural offshoot of Sanderson’s passions — is its accessibility. At the mercy of whichever way the wind is blowing, Wiffle ball is what he calls “the great equalizer” — a sport that everyone can play.
“I’m 44, and I can’t do things I used to be able to do, but I can still hit a Wiffle ball,” Nate Sanderson said. “Everyone from 8 to 60 can play.”
Sanderson in 2007 buit a cruder version of the field on a weed-ridden concrete foundation at his former home in Muscatine home, painting bases on the ground. Wiffle ball doesn’t have an intricate meaning to him — it’s just something fun, he said.
But at the core of his motivation to make this version bigger and better has been his desire to help his community by building something that extends beyond the backyard. The couple’s faith drives them to make the world a better place, even if in subtle ways.
“That’s the foundation of who we are. We don’t have a Jesus sticker or anything, but that is motivation for us to make the world a better place and use what we have to better serve others,” Nate said.
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