The New York Yankees began their spring training season in Tampa a few weeks ago. Now they’ve also kicked off a major annual outreach program by recognizing a charity in the Tampa Bay area.
Each baseball season, the Yankees recognize the works of five New York area individuals, organizations and charities during HOPE Week. According to a press release, HOPE stands for Helping Others Persevere and Excel.
This is the eighth consecutive year for the weeklong community program and the sixth year that the Yankees have begun their annual HOPE outreach program during spring training in Tampa. HOPE Week runs from June 6 to 10.
This year’s local honoree is the Tampa chapter of Ainsley’s Angels of America, which received a $10,000 check from the major league baseball club.
Ainsley’s Angels is a national running organization that builds awareness about inclusiveness in sports by pushing special-needs riders in wheelchairs during competitive road races and distance runs such as half-marathon races.
Jodi Stoner, state ambassador for Ainsley’s Angels in Florida, says the Yankees went all out in hosting the group prior to a spring training matchup with the Baltimore Orioles at George M. Steinbrenner Field.
“Reggie Jackson came over and spent 30 minutes with the kids and took pictures with them,” she said.
Ainsley’s Angels chair riders Sabian Fuentes and Katie Thompson teamed up for pregame events.
Sabian threw out the first pitch and Thompson signed the national anthem as vocalist Pedro Amaral sang.
Sabian was all fistbumps and smiles as his mother, Leira Fuentes, pushed him past a cheering crowd.
Fuentes, who is an Angels runner, says including her son, who has spina bifida, in sporting events makes a difference in both of their lives.
“It’s given him hope and confidence that he can do so much more,” she said. “It makes him feel like a member of a team.”
Yankees General Partner and Vice Chairperson Jennifer Steinbrenner Swindal, the daughter of the late former Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, says the group is a worthy recipient of the team’s support.
“These are wonderful people who are doing wonderful things,” she said. “The happiness they bring, especially to the children, is because someone takes the time to make a difference.”
Stoner says that being someone’s legs in a race has its own rewards.
“The first time you see your rider with their hands up in the air and they’re smiling, it’s a blessing,” Stoner said.
One of the runners who pushes riders to athletic glory is Angela Kanakis. She says the pace of a run can vary.
“It’s the excitement you get to see when your rider is feeling the wind while you’re running,” she said. “I’ve had a rider who wanted to get flowers for her mom, so we stopped and picked flowers.”
Yankees employee Michelle Edwards is also an Angels runner. She says the commitment to share that moment of crossing a finish line together goes beyond the physical task of running.
“They’re dependent upon you. You have to take care of them. They might have a feeding tube,” she said.
And, according to Edwards, the measure of victory when running as an Ainsley’s Angel has more to do with promoting an ideal than demonstrating athletic prowess.
“When you see them smile, you know that when that happens inclusion wins,” she said.
One upcoming event the local chapter of Ainsley’s Angels has on its calendar is the third annual Special Olympics 5K Fun Run/Walk to Benefit Special Olympics Florida - Pasco County. The run will be held April 9 in New Port Richey.
You can learn more about Ainsley’s Angels by visiting the organization’s website at ainsleysangels.org.