The group brought suitcases packed with baseball gear -- bats, balls, shoes and countless T-shirts donated from various teams -- as well as remembrances of Jana Almendarez, which will be placed in a home built for orphans rescued off the streets of Lusaka, the African nation's capital. Jana's House, set to open Jan. 1, will be the home to 12 orphan girls -- ages 6 to 15 -- and will always serve as a reminder of the power of love, faith and community.
"When I see the house, it's going to kind of hit home," Almendarez said. "It's going to be bittersweet. I'm really excited for [my sons]. All the love and support we've gotten over the last 18 months has just been unbelievable."
Almendarez lost his wife on May 14, following an 11-month battle with stage 4 glioblastoma, an aggressive, malignant tumor. She was diagnosed on June 28, 2015, just six months after the Almendarez family -- Chris and Jana, and sons Chase and Luke -- returned from a mission trip to Zambia as part Family Legacy's Tree of Life. The organization rescues children from severe cases of abuse and poverty, and places them in homes where they get a high-school education and can be taught other life skills.
Not long after his wife passed away, Almendarez had lunch with Ryan and his family at the Dixie Café in Hearne, Texas. Ryan told Almendarez he wanted to spearhead the dedication of another house in the Children's Village in Lusaka -- this one in honor of Jana.
"I had a friend in Austin who lost a daughter to cancer and they had been involved with this mission and built a house in her name," said Ryan, the son of Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan and founder of the Express and the Double-A Corpus Christi Hooks. "So the idea sort of popped in my head. She loved this mission, his family loved this mission. What better way than to sort of create a lasting legacy, and all of the people within baseball and Austin and the whole state of Texas -- both the Texas League and the Pacific Coast League -- they all want to do something to help Chris, to help honor [Jana]. People just want to do something."
Almendarez wasn't sure of Ryan's idea to return to Africa initially. He was still dealing with the death of his wife, and building another house would mean $250,000 would have to be raised. Chris had mounting medical bills of his own, as well.
"I go, 'Reid, man, that's the last thing on my mind, bud,'" he said. "He goes, 'No, just think about it. Christmastime is going to be tough at the holidays, but what a better way to kind of get over there and share a good memory you had with Jana?'"
Thanks to the Ryan family's connections and the baseball community more than $250,000 was raised to get the house built, spearheaded by initial donations by Reid Ryan, Nolan Ryan, Round Rock Express CEO Reese Ryan and Houston businessman Don Sanders. All-Star pitcher Huston Street donated $30,000. Donations poured in all summer, thanks in part to the social media hashtags #TeamJana and #JanaStrong, which were painted on the outfield wall at Dell Diamond in Round Rock. T-shirts helped spread the word. By late October, the money was raised.
"We raised the money and we built the house and we endowed the house so that they'll be able to maintain it and keep it," Ryan said. "We will decorate the inside of it where these girls will live. We have pictures of Jana, we have pictures of my dad, all the people that donated. We've got pictures of them and Chris and the boys, Express, the Astros, all this kind of stuff."
Reid Ryan is making the trip with his wife Nicole, son Jackson and daughters Victoria and Ella. Reese Ryan and his family are on the trip, along with other Express front-office members. Former U.S. softball gold medalist Cat Osterman -- an assistant softball coach at Texas State and a friend of Jana's -- is also heading to Africa.
The trip will be the third for Chris Almendarez, who went in 2014 with his sons. He persuaded Jana to go a year later, and life soon changed forever. Jana is gone, but the generosity of the baseball community is making sure her legacy endures.
"It's a great way to honor my wife," Almendarez said. "It's a little bittersweet, but we're doing good things in her honor and that's what made me proud. It's been very therapeutic to be able to talk to folks about it and share our word about our faith. I think that going to Africa is going to give us a little bit of closure. I love and miss my wife more than anything in the world, but she's not coming back. It's one of those things that we're going to move forward and just continue to honor her."