A local doctor has combined his love of mission work with his affinity for volleyball to make a difference for underprivileged girls locally and internationally.
For more than 15 years, Dr. Richard Paat has traveled to impoverished regions as well as areas devastated by natural disasters to lend a helping hand. While on these volunteer missions, he realized he could help spread optimism and hope through volleyball — a sport he has coached for decades at the youth level.
Paat, a St. John’s Jesuit and University of Toledo graduate, started the Toledo Starlings Volleyball Club 15 years ago as part of the Starlings Volleyball national program.
Paat's current team is a hybrid of three Toledo-area kids and four players from Puerto Rico. The club team, which was established to help disadvantaged kids, recently competed in San Diego.
“Our mission is to positively impact the lives of at-risk girls through the sport of volleyball,” Paat said. “Most of our girls can’t afford the high cost of club volleyball. We’re a small club that tries to give deserving girls great growth opportunities.”
The Starlings program is a national organization that has some 2,500 girls in 50 clubs around the U.S. Founded in 1996 in San Diego by former U.S. national team member Byron Shewman, the club was established for girls 10 to 18.
“Ours is the only Starlings program in Ohio,” Paat said.
The doctor of internal medicine at St. Luke's Hospital has taken volunteer trips to Guatemala, Honduras, and the Philippines to offer his services and medical supplies.
“We bring teams every year to those places, but we also send disaster teams into various areas of the world,” Paat said. “That's how we started going to Puerto Rico.”
It was his third mission to Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, that opened up a surprising connection. The area had been devastated by Hurricane Maria, a deadly Category 5 hurricane that hit the island in September, 2017.
“They had no electricity for 8½ months after Hurricane Maria,” Paat said.
He said one of his players on the mission, Kaitlyn Graham, met local Puerto Rican player Adriana de Jesús.
“I always carry a volleyball with me,” Paat said. “I popped it up and watched them play. That struck everything up.”
They paired quickly bonded over volleyball.
“I met Adriana and we became really good friends. I found out she played volleyball and we just had so much fun practicing and playing,” Graham said.
The Puerto Rican players showed Paat videos of them competing in tournaments and put him in contact with their coach.
“I brought out a volleyball and watched them play and then hatched up the idea of a combined team competing at the Starlings Nationals,” he said.
The hybrid team consists of three girls from Toledo and four girls from Yabucoa, Puerto Rico. Graham, who attends Toledo Christian, is joined by Maria Olvera (Notre Dame) and Miranda Nino (Cardinal Stritch). Graham is the daughter of Paat's physician’s assistant and helps with his volunteering efforts. Graham and the other local players are all 16.
“It was really bad down there,” Graham said. “I just like helping out. If I'm able to do something to help out, I'll do it. I helped out with water filters and taught them how to put them together and how to use them.”
The local Starlings team competed at the Starlings National Championships in San Diego in late June.
“Those kids have been through a lot,” Paat said “We wanted to do something special for them.”
The team was playing together for the first time.
“That was really cool to see people from different parts of the world communicating through volleyball,” Graham said. “I was surprised we did so well. I don't speak Spanish and they don't speak English, but we did well.”
Competing in the 16-and-under-division, they finished in the top 12.
“Even though we never practiced together and had language barriers, we finished 12th out of 36 teams and the girls had a lot of fun and great memories,” Paat said.
The teammates enjoyed it so much they have launched a fund-raising effort so that they could get together again to compete.
“We hope to compete at the Puerto Rico volleyball championships in June 2020,” Paat said.
Paat remains in contact with his players in Puerto Rico. When Hurricane Dorian beared down on the island and hit on Wednesday, he waited anxiously until he heard from them.
“They weathered it pretty well,” Paat said. “They were all pretty scared after Hurricane Maria. Our girls were scared for their teammates down there, too. Everybody is OK.”
Two years ago, the island's infrastructure was virtually destroyed by Hurricane Maria.
“They were all pretty resilient. That area was the first that got hit by that Level 5 and it was one of the last places that got electricity back,” Paat said. “There was no school for a while. The schools were being used for shelters. A lot of their friends left and moved because of the damage.”
Paat said playing volleyball served as a much-needed distraction from the disaster.
“They stuck it out. Playing volleyball helped bring order back into their lives,” Paat said. “The coaches kept them together and focused on volleyball.”