Judging by playoff runs in 2015 and 2016, the Toronto Blue Jays have an unparalleled ability among Canadian pro sports teams to unite fans from coast to coast. The team’s charitable arm has a similar ability — only it endeavours to level the playing field for kids from all backgrounds.
Jays Care Foundation uses baseball to teach life skills and create lasting social change for youth in marginalized communities across Canada. The organization works in all 10 provinces and two territories, impacting over 65,000 kids annually.
Leveraging the power of the Blue Jays brand and organization, the foundation works with several groups that face pronounced opportunity gaps: children living at or below the poverty line; children with physical and/or cognitive disabilities; Indigenous children and youth; and girls without access to sport. Jays Care also invests in the creation and refurbishment of baseball diamonds, providing youth with safe spaces to play and learn.
This year, Jays Care is launching the #UnstoppableKids campaign, which celebrates the strength and resilience of kids in Jays Care programs across the country. Scroll down to see some of those kids in action and read their stories. And keep checking back throughout the 2018 MLB season for more.
To hear Evania and her coaches tell it, she was shy and hesitant when she first started playing Challenger Baseball in 2016. But to see her play, speak her mind and interact with her teammates now, you’d never actually believe them.
Challenger Baseball is an adaptive program specifically designed to empower kids living with disabilities. Through playing, Evania and the rest of the program’s roughly 3,000 participants realize that they can and should participate in sport.
Evania, who has cerebral palsy, plays one or two games per week in her four-team Challenger league. Over the course of two seasons, her coaches say she has picked up and improved on skills like hitting off a tee, running the bases, positioning, throwing and catching.
“Before I even played baseball I was just, like, all lonely and didn’t really get lots of chances to meet new people,” she said. “They started Challenger Baseball and I was kinda shy, but after I started playing more often, I had more friends and became more happier…. Ever since that day that I started baseball I just got new friends and had a bigger smile on my face every day.”
Evania has also become known for her sportsmanship, encouraging both her teammates and opposing players.
“Evania always has high fives for everyone,” says Bobbi Bobbit, Evania’s coach and the Manitoba Challenger Baseball provincial coordinator. “Every time I see her she needs to run over and give me a huge hug, and is incredibly thankful for being able to play baseball.”
For these and many more reasons, Evania was named Baseball Manitoba’s 2016 Challenger Player of the Year. And, true to new form, she gave a rousing acceptance speech.
“You don’t have to be perfect to play [baseball],” she told Global News when she accepted her award. “You just have to have fun and go for it.”
Across the country, the Rookie League program is tailored to the specific needs, goals and assets of each community where it is run. Launched in Toronto 30 years ago, it aims to close the opportunity gaps for kids in underserved communities, often taking the form of after-school programming or summer day camps.
“The opportunity to go to Rookie League camp is amazing — the campers are able to learn from each other, meet new people and become involved in their community as they grow,” says Mariama, a long-time Rookie League coach.
Mariama and coaches like her have seen scores of kids blossom as a result of the program.
Ajahni (or ‘AJ’), a Toronto Community Housing Rookie League participant, is one of those kids. His coach, Husein Ladha, says AJ’s community has seen an increase in violence in recent years, but that he has risen above it to become a leader and role model. Known for being a positive presence, AJ always greets people with a smile when he walks into a room. He loves basketball and football as well as baseball, and his connection with sports has reached new heights since joining Rookie League.
“AJ was always the first one to arrive on site — even before the staff got there,” says Ladha. “He is a true leader, role-modeling positive and encouraging behaviours to those not only younger but older in the community as well.”
Early this year AJ attended the Rookie League selects camp for kids who show tremendous effort and potential, but he’s not the only member of his family to be a part of the program. AJ’s mom participated in the mid-1990s, making him a second-generation Rookie Leaguer.
James Bay Girls At Bat
Amara is from Chapleau Cree First Nation, a tiny northern First Nation nine hours from Toronto with a population of 409. As one of many leaders in the program from Ontario’s James Bay Coast, Amara designs, promotes and leads events for youth in her area.
She hasn’t always done this. She started a year ago after attending Jays Care’s first James Bay Girls At Bat retreat in Timmins. The program brings together girls ages 12 to 18 — it builds connections, enhances leadership skills and encourages girls to run community programming for their peers.
“I didn’t know what to expect when I got to the retreat,” Amara says, “but it changed my life.”
After a week of workshops and activities in Timmins, she was inspired and had made lasting connections.
“Girls At Bat is my second family — it was so hard to say goodbye. I Facetime and text every day with the girls I met. We had such a strong connection, and we still do.”
With her new friends and new motivation, Amara went home and got to work. She has organized many different events — from a sports-and-games night to a bake-off — and she’s just getting started. Amara sees her role as a Youth Champion as something bigger than the chance to build her leadership skills.
“Our youth are the next generation. They are the ones that are going to be carrying our teachings. They are going to be our next chiefs,” she says. “This program taught me how to be compassionate with my programming and how to be resilient and strong. It taught me how to be there for my people.”
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