Originally posted on the Canadian Baseball Network, July 27th, 2014
WHITBY – For over 20 years, the Jays Care Foundation, charitable arm of the Toronto Blue Jays, has been busy making a profound difference in communities across Canada.
Founded in 1992, Jays Care uses such initiatives as the annual Curve Ball Gala, Charity Golf Classic, Roberto Alomar Home Run Challenge and 50-50 draws to raise funding for local Rookie Leagues, scholarship programs and Field of Dreams ballpark renovations.
In addition to supporting a handful of impactful causes, the foundation also uses donations to support a number of individual charitable efforts.
Efforts such as helping a young baseball fan realize his big league dreams.
Under overcast skies, more than 400 participants gathered at Iroquois park in Whitby, Ont. earlier this July as the Blue Jays Baseball Academy hosted a special one-day Super Camp to help raise funds for Ben Sheppard, a local eight-year-old who is currently battling one of life’s most challenging curveballs.
Adopted by Robyn and Norman Sheppard at the age of five, Ben has been diagnosed with left hemiplegic spastic cerebral palsy and has battled pain stemming from tightness and spasticity in his muscles for most of his life. As he has matured, the condition has worsened to the point where it hinders Ben’s ability to run, walk and play his favorite game … baseball.
Although he currently struggles with mobility and often has to rely on a wheelchair as a means of getting around safely, the cerebral palsy hasn’t dampened Sheppard’s spirits or his desire to live out his dream of one day running the bases at Rogers Centre.
“He’s just a boy who loves baseball,” said Robyn Sheppard, Ben’s adoptive mother. “You can’t stop him. He plays baseball in our house, running up and down the hallways with his little foam bat that he carries around. Often times, he lays in bed and kicks his feet as if he’s running the bases as fast as his favorite Blue Jay, Anthony Gose.”
Ben believes he can be as fast as Gose someday. But in order to get there, the young baseball fanatic will need to undergo life-changing surgery.
Fortunately, a procedure called Selective Dorzal Rhizotomy (SDR) can release some of the tightness that has caused the youngster so much pain over the years. However, the surgery, which involves cutting certain spinal nerves in order to release muscle rigidity, is not available in Ontario.
Notably performed by Pediatric Neurosurgeon Dr. T.S. Park, the revolutionary SDR procedure comes with a price tag of $55,000 and is commonly practiced at the St. Louis Children’s Hospital in Missouri.
In order to offset the impending medical, rehabilitation and travel costs, the Sheppard family set an overall fundraising goal of $100,000.
“We sent Jays Care some letters simply because Ben is such a big fan,” Robyn said. “We were just hoping that they would give us a plug. We didn’t really know what was going to happen. But shortly after, representatives got back to us, and over time this clinic somehow came to be and the whole experience has been amazing. We can’t thank them (Jays Care) enough for everything they’ve done.”
To help raise money for Ben’s surgery, the Jays Care Foundation enlisted the services of several Blue Jays alumni, including Roberto Alomar, Alex Gonzalez, Tony Fernandez, Devon White, Lloyd Moseby, George Bell, Carlos Delgado, Jesse Barfield, Duane Ward, Nigel Wilson and Brian McCrae who, alongside Whitby Minor Baseball coaches, helped instruct the three-hour clinic on Sunday afternoon.
“Ben’s dream is very simple, he wants to walk pain-free so he is able to play baseball with other kids,” said Alomar, the former Blue Jays’ second baseman and Hall of Famer, who currently serves as a special assistant to the organization. “After understanding Ben’s passion for baseball, it was a very easy decision to get involved and lend a helping hand to him and his family.”
A proud partner of the Toronto Blue Jays, Honda Canada also stepped up to the plate, agreeing to match all funds raised through the clinic’s registration with a one-time monetary contribution.
“Honda and the Blue Jays have been together for over 30 years,” said Barry Holt, a representative of Honda Canada. “Part of our sponsorship includes funding the team’s Super Camps, and when the Blue Jays approached us with this opportunity, we just couldn’t say no. It’s simple. Ben absolutely loves baseball and the fact that we were able to help him and do this camp here in Whitby, where so many of our families live, it was really special.”
In a scene that closely resembled that of spring training in Dunedin, parents lined the fences, peering in to catch a glimpse of their kids as they took the field alongside some of the greatest ballplayers to suit up for the Toronto Blue Jays. For many of the parents, the experience was just as exciting as it was for their children.
“It’s almost a dream come true for me,” said Matt Buehler, whose son Luke took part in Sunday’s camp. “I grew up watching these guys in the 80’s and 90’s. Robbie, George, Jesse, all those great guys. This is fantastic.”
Aside from the opportunity to have their children learn from some of the best, the fact that all funds raised through Whitby’s camp will end up going to such a great cause really touched home with many of the parents involved in Sunday’s clinic.
“Obviously, we wanted to come to the camp,” said Herb Wallace, whose daughter Bailey participated in her first Blue Jays clinic. “But because of the cause, it was a must. It’s great to see all the alumni come out and show their support. We saw Ben out on the field with Alomar earlier, and you know, you get a little teary-eyed. It was very emotional.”
Supporting key initiatives such as Challenger Baseball, Honda Instructional Clinics, and Tournament 12, the Blue Jays Baseball Academy, powered by Jays Care, has helped make a difference in the lives of thousands of children across Canada. On Sunday, the organization kept that trend going by helping Ben Sheppard realize his big league dreams.
“This is an unbelievable turnout,” said former Blue Jays slugger and 2013 Level of Excellence inductee Carlos Delgado. “It’s a good opportunity to help out a kid in need, and at the end of the day, we love baseball, so if we can get out there and teach it a little bit, it’s a great time for us alumni.”
In addition to funds raised through various initiatives around the Durham region, more than $68,000 was accumulated through the clinic’s registration fees along with the contribution from Honda Canada. After crunching the numbers, the Blue Jays were proud to announce that the goal of $100,000 had been met prior to Sunday’s event.
“When I pulled up to the park this morning, I saw a sea of people, and it touched me,” said Robyn. “To think that they’re here for my son. It was beautiful. This is an experience that Ben will take with him for the rest of his life.”
-Follow Andrew Hendriks on Twitter (@77hendriks)