TAMPA — A 13-year-old, his red T-shirt perfectly matching his exuberance, threw out the first pitch.
Other kids trotted out to the field with the players, standing as the national anthem played. Before the game started, they clutched freshly-autographed baseballs, smiled at guys just a few years older than them.
It’s another day at the baseball game. Steinbrenner Field welcomed youth to get a taste of the professional baseball life their minor leaguers enjoy every day, but the moments of joy the Class A Tampa Tarpons provided for the Joshua House kids hold greater meaning than the typical player-kid interaction.
Consider how these youths arrived at Joshua House, a safe haven for abused kids in suburban Tampa. The typical child enters the facility after bouncing from one foster home to another, sometimes as many as 20 or 30 homes.
They show up with all their belongings packed in a garbage bag, and they don’t own a lot. So much has been given to them – love, promises, stability – only to be taken away. Yet they do arrive with plenty to unpack: emotional upheaval from years of dysfunction, nightmarish neglect and unimaginable stories.
“They come from families in crisis,” said DeDe Grundel, executive director of the Friends of Joshua House Foundation. “Then they end up in foster care and their lives become restrictive to keep them safe.”
At the field, however, the restraints give way to fun. They toy with Blue, the Tarpons mascot, eat hotdogs and chase foul balls. Grundel said some had never attended a game, never stood for the national anthem, never seen someone throw out an honorary first pitch.
“That’s why it’s so necessary for them to have these life-enriching experiences,” Grundel said. “Having a little joy, getting a chance to be carefree kids is part of their stabilization.”
This is the mission of the Tarpons’ philanthropic week of giving dubbed Helping Others Persevere and Excel. They delivered on the HOPE acronym for Joshua House and four other nonprofits this week, wrapping up the effort on Thursday night.
Every New York Yankees affiliate and the major league club craft an outreach week that allows players to touch lives and connect with the community. The Yankees initiated the program in 2009, and its affiliates adopted the approach in 2012.
Of course, we expect such efforts from the athletes at the sport’s highest level. Many deliver, creating their own foundations and contributing to worthy causes. Sometimes, Yankees on rehab assignments with the Tarpons like Didi Gregorious volunteer to visit kids at Tampa General.
Yet in some ways it’s more impressive to see minor leaguers reaching out to kids in Tampa. Who would blame the Tarpons’ Glenn Otto, a 23-year-old righthander from Spring, Texas, if he chose to focus more on developing his pitches, outdueling other aspiring stars and pursuing his big-league dreams. Otto, however, not only helped welcome the Joshua House kids to Steinbrenner Field, he joined teammates in visiting with them at the residential facility.
“This was my first HOPE week with the Tarpons, and it’s something I’ll always remember,” Otto said. “In a career where so many other people sacrifice so much to help us fulfill our dream, it was nice to be able to give back and show the kids at Joshua House the love and generosity they deserve.”
Tampa Tarpons pitcher Shawn Semple plays with one of the children at Joshua House. Photo courtesy of Tampa Tarpons.
It went that way all week. On Sunday, they welcomed unaccompanied youth from Starting Right, Now. On Monday, players volunteered at Trinity Café. On Tuesday, they spent time with the Joshua House kids and on Wednesday and Thursday, the Tarpons granted tours respectively to staff and volunteers from Gracepoint and Voices For Children.
In the process, the Tarpons not only hope to build a sense of goodwill among its players, but inspire fans to engage in meaningful ways.
“The one thing everyone has to give is time,” Yankees general partner Jennifer Steinbrenner Swindal said in a prepared statement. “If we all took a moment to help others, our world would be such a wonderful place.”
Each of the nonprofits that took part in the Tarpons’ HOPE Week received a monetary donation, but the investment it made in kids, in volunteers and in the makeup of the participating players will likely lead to a greater dividend.
“Being around those kids and hearing them laugh and seeing them smile was definitely refreshing,” Otto said. “I look forward to my next opportunity to make an impact in the community.”
At least for one day, Otto and the Tarpons gave the kids of Joshua House something else to pack in that garbage bag: pleasant memories.
That’s all I’m saying.
Contact Ernest Hooper at email@example.com. Follow @hoop4you.