By J.P. Antonacci
Canadian Baseball Network
Hitting a home run in his first spring training at-bat as a Blue Jay endeared Curtis Granderson to the Toronto faithful. But it was what the veteran outfielder did off the field that made the biggest impact.
Before Toronto’s March 17 game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Granderson welcomed 36 kids from the Coral Heights neighbourhood of Largo, Fla. to the Blue Jays spring training home in Dunedin. After a bus ride arranged by Granderson’s Grand Kids Foundation, the kids toured the stadium, played some games, had lunch, and were brought to a practice field, where Granderson and several other Blue Jays players talked with them about the importance of education, nutrition, and making good life choices.
“This is just a unique opportunity for kids who rarely get the chance to get out of the neighbourhood and enjoy a baseball game like this. A lot of them, this is their first game, so they’re really excited,” said Mark Kober, community chair of the Coral Heights Local Neighborhood Association and leader of Coral Heights Outreach, which host community events and arrange food distribution programs in Coral Heights.
“The majority of their time is spent at school and then back home in the neighbourhood,” Kober added. “Today they get to be right next to the players and it impacts them greatly. It was just a wonderful opportunity for these kids and they are really grateful.”
Helping kids – especially kids from inner-city and low-income neighbourhoods – has long been a focus for Granderson, who throughout his career has hosted youth groups at spring training camps, imparting baseball skills and life lessons.
“I consider myself a big kid. I also enjoy just the excitement that was there. Especially when you have kids that don’t have it, hopefully you can bring it back,” Granderson said.
“You would see certain situations where adults might be sad, depressed, angry. The kids are always still excited and happy. I think that was always part of the reason that I gravitated towards them.”
Kober said the kids from Coral Heights – who ranged in age from four to 17 – hung on Granderson’s every word.
“Curtis Granderson did a great job – him and the guys he brought along with him. I think they were able to communicate just how important studying hard, staying in school (is),” Kober said.
“They got to implement a few morals and values that I hope these kids, because of the position (Granderson) holds here, respect him and they’ll listen to him. And they’ll consider these things when they’re in certain situations that normally they would have just operated in a manner just like their neighbours, but now they’ll have a chance to reflect and act a little bit differently. And hopefully that’ll change their lives.”
That’s an especially important outcome for kids who live in a neighbourhood with a lot of spirit but also many challenges, Kober added.
“We experience a lot of the difficulties that most lower-income neighbourhoods do. We’ve got issues with domestic violence, drug charges,” he said.
“A lot of these kids are surrounded by things that are out of their control, and they experience things that you wouldn’t want most adults to experience. But they are getting this opportunity today that’s going to help them to see there’s something different and something better for them.”
Granderson, who celebrated his 37th birthday the day before welcoming the group from Coral Heights, founded the Grand Kids Foundation in 2007 to foster healthy development for inner-city kids by promoting education, nutrition, and physical fitness. With what Granderson describes as “a lot of assistance from other people who share the same passion and want to give back,” the foundation hosts a month-long Thanksgiving appeal, called Grand Giving, aimed at reducing food insecurity in the United States and around the world.
“The focus on Thanksgiving is about bringing together your friends and family and being thankful for the things that you have, things that you’ve been able to experience, and also acknowledging that some people are a lot less fortunate than you,” Granderson said. “So, being in a giving mood, we’re able to piggyback off that and a lot of people come out to support.”
According to the foundation’s website (grandkids.org), Grand Giving has provided 17.5 million meals for children and families in need, including donations to food banks in Granderson’s hometown of Chicago and in Houston last year after Hurricane Harvey.
Granderson puts a lot of effort into being a mentor and role model, as he was for the kids from Largo last month. He created the Grand Kids Academy, which teaches baseball skills and encourages healthy lifestyles for tens thousands of kids each year, and his foundation’s Summer Series program invites 500 kids to take in Major League Baseball games every summer.
To ensure youth from inner-city neighbourhoods appreciate the value of education, Granderson visits schools and reads to students, provides backpacks filled with school supplies, and even wrote his own children’s book, All You Can Be: Dream It, Draw It, Become It!, in 2009.
The busy outfielder credits the example set by his parents, Mary and Curtis Sr, as motivating his own charity work.
“Growing up, they were doing what people would classify as ‘giving back.’ They didn’t call it that, they didn’t talk about it. It just was their nature,” Granderson said.
“And being around that, I saw the ways they would do it. Friends needing rides to and from practice, clothes I had outgrown, with both my mom and dad being teachers they would take that stuff to their schools for kids who may not have had it. You were always welcome to come over and get something to eat and drink at our house.
“Now I’m in a situation where I can do those things on a slightly bigger scale.”
The young fans in matching Grand Kids T-shirts and autographed Jays hats, who loudly cheered Granderson’s every at-bat and waved homemade signs honouring their new favourite player, won’t soon forget the day they got to go backstage at the ballpark. Kober hopes they also won’t forget Granderson’s message that their future can be bright if they make the right choices.
“I want these kids to know that there’s hope, there’s joy, that life has a lot to offer, that the world is big out there and they can enjoy most of it,” Kober said.
“They just have to practice things different from what they mostly experience in the neighbourhood. But a few simple things can help them experience the world in a much happier way.”