HOPE Week to return for 4th year

The Yankees announced before Friday’s Grapefruit League game in Tampa that HOPE Week will return in 2012 for the fourth consecutive season. HOPE Week (Helping Others Persevere & Excel) is a social program that illuminates five stories intended to inspire individuals into action in their own communities. HOPE Week 2012 will take place in New York from Monday, June 25, through Friday, June 29.

Each day over the five-day stretch, the Yankees will reach out to an individual, family or organization worthy of recognition and support, surprising honorees with a day celebrating their accomplishments. Outreach will often take place away from Yankee Stadium, allowing the Yankees to connect with individuals in settings that highlight their greatest successes.

HOPE Week is rooted in the fundamental belief that acts of goodwill provide hope and encouragement to more than just the recipient of the gesture. Fans can learn more about the initiative and nominate inspirational individuals for HOPE Week recognition by visiting the official website at hopeweek.com.

In the spirit of the initiative, the Yankees honored Tampa Catholic High School baseball player Owen Sarwatka, 17, who as a sophomore in 2010, was inspired to create “Everyone Can Play,” a nonprofit, volunteer-run, baseball skills clinic for children with physical and/or intellectual disabilities.

Owen, his parents, Suzanne and Frank, along with participants and volunteers from “Everyone Can Play” were guests of the Yankees Friday at Steinbrenner Field prior the Yankees’ game vs. the Twins. The group took batting practice on the field, followed by an on-field ceremony in which disabled players and their mentors stood side-by-side with Yankees players during the national anthem. Owen delivered the Yankees’ lineup card to the umpires and threw out the ceremonial first pitch.

Owen first became interested in helping disabled youth while watching highlights of major-leaguers giving their time in support of Little League Baseball’s Challenger Division. Some of Owen’s goals in launching his project and supporting the Challenger ideals included promoting acceptance and inclusion for all members of society, eliminating the bullying and exclusion of those least able to defend themselves, improving the health and fitness of those with disabilities, and providing young mentors an outlet to give back to their community while developing mentoring skills.

To get his idea off the ground, Owen chose to forgo Christmas presents in order to receive donations for his project. After hundreds of hours of planning devoted to his mission, the first “Everyone Can Play” event took place Jan. 15, 2011, at Bloomingdale Little League in Valrico, Fla. The festivities brought together a diverse group of over 300 individuals, including his teammates, other high school athletes, community volunteers and 40 special-needs children, 16 of whom had never before played baseball.

Owen’s vision and determination were validated when, as a result of their experience, all 40 of the special-needs children who attended his clinic signed up to play baseball in the spring. Recently, Owen held his second clinic Jan. 14, 2012, at Tampa Catholic, drawing 450 people, including 60 special-needs children. Planning is already in the works for another Challenger event Jan. 13, 2013.

To remind participants of the importance of giving back to others, the uniforms of all players and volunteers in “Everyone Can Play” were emblazoned with a “GMS” patch, honoring the humanitarian efforts of the late Yankees owner George M. Steinbrenner.

Owen’s accomplishments have come in the face of his own challenges. Despite having been born with a malfunctioning kidney that has necessitated multiple surgeries and caused chronic pain, he remains focused on improving the lives of disabled children in his community.

Equally significant during HOPE Week is garnering publicity for the highlighted causes and organizations. The greatest challenge facing many not-for-profits is generating interest, awareness and funding for their missions.

At the conclusion of HOPE Week 2010 and HOPE Week 2011, the Yankees and the Steinbrenner family were honored with the President’s Volunteer Service Award, given “in recognition and appreciation of commitment to strengthening the Nation and for making a difference through volunteer service.” The awards were bestowed by the President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation in conjunction with the Corporation for National and Community Service.

The Yankees were also twice honored during the recent offseason, receiving the DMF Champion of HOPE Award from Daniel’s Music Foundation Nov. 8, 2011, and the “Just Cause” Award at the PromaxBDA Sports Media Marketing Summit Nov. 15, 2011.

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