LA GUAIRA, Venezuela -- The caravan wound along a dusty, rutted track toward the refugee camp and suddenly the children were everywhere, running and shouting excitedly.
Spotting a familiar face at a van window, their joy was transformed into awe.
"Gato! Gato!" they yelled, and Andres Galarraga smiled and lifted a hand in greeting.
"We've been spending a lot of time doing this sort of thing to give motivation to the people," said the Atlanta Braves first baseman, whose visit to the Red Cross camp Saturday morning was a national event. "I feel really bad for them, especially the young people. I feel better when they have some food to eat."
Galarraga, along with fellow Venezuelans Eddie Perez, Fernando Lunar, Miguel Cairo and Wilson Alvarez, Major League Baseball personnel and Braves and Tampa Bay Devil Rays officials, spent a half-hour at the camp, which houses 435 families made homeless by December's devastating mudslides. It was a touching and sobering experience for the players, who made a symbolic gesture by delivering 5,000 pounds of bottled water, diapers and food.
Major League Baseball and the Player's Association also donated $250,000 to the relief effort.
"This is a very happy moment for them," said Jose Martinez, a special assistant to Braves general manager John Schuerholz. "They say this is the most beautiful gift that could be given to them, for the players to come here and visit."
The reception Galarraga received befitted a national hero. He was engulfed by Red Cross workers and TV cameramen from the moment he stepped from the van, though one small boy slipped through the crowd to stand next to his hero.
"Hola," 12-year-old Juan Jose Mendez said shyly.
"Hola," Galarraga said, returning the greeting in Spanish.
"You're a good ballplayer," Mendez told Galarraga. "I enjoy watching you play."
"Gracias," Galarraga responded.
Later, as Mendez watched children crowd around Galarraga to ask for his autograph, he said, "He's a fantastic person. Very helpful to his country. I feel like he's part of my family. It's a big emotion. Everyone appreciates him coming here to bring help."
Traveling to the camp, located about an hour from Caracas, the scars from the mudslides were still visible, stark and frightening, even from a distance. On the surrounding hills and mountains the earth had been scraped clean, lives and homes wiped away as if they had never been.
"Somebody said it looks like a tiger scratched the mountains," Martinez said.
"It's unbelievable," Galarraga said.
Families made homeless by the mudslides made a half-completed concrete office building near the airport their new home. The building has walls, floors and ceilings, but no windows, doors, electricity or running water. The people have draped sheets and blankets across doorways and window openings and the Red Cross has taken charge to provide clean drinking water and improve conditions.
"I could see in their faces they were happy to see us," Perez said. "I looked at a kid's smiling face and an old guy said `Thanks for coming.' I wish I could give them more. If a lot of people do what we did for them today, they'll be OK."
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