Denver club goes to bat for kids' charity
Rotarian Jim Wilkins, who created the Branch Rickey Award, and his wfie, Scotty.
Philadelphia Phillies center fielder Shane Victorino finished the 2011 baseball season error-free, with a perfect fielding percentage and a respectable .279 batting average. In November, the three-time Gold Glover marked yet another top baseball achievement when the Rotary Club of Denver gave him its 20th annual Branch Rickey Award.
The honor, which celebrates a player’s off-the-diamond humanitarian accomplishments, was named for the baseball executive and player who made history in 1945 by signing Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers organization, breaking the sport’s color barrier.
Since the 1940s, the Denver club has raised $3.8 million for Denver Kids, a program that has helped thousands of at-risk children complete high school. Of that total, $1.56 million has come from the Branch Rickey Award dinner. Now the club’s primary fundraiser, the event brings in ticket sales, sponsorships, and auction proceeds.
Victorino, 31, known as “The Flyin’ Hawaiian,” was chosen for the award because of his work to help young people in Philadelphia and in his native Hawaii. The Shane Victorino Foundation, which he started with his wife, Melissa, in 2010, has committed $900,000 toward renovating the 105-year-old Nicetown Boys & Girls Club in an impoverished Philly neighborhood. It also has raised $500,000 for charities in Hawaii, including the Hawaii Children’s Cancer Foundation, the Boys & Girls Club of Maui, and local Little League and high school groups.
Before the 453-plate dinner, Victorino got a ride from the airport with past club president Jim Wilkins, whom Denver Rotarians credit with creating the award. “It was really that the Denver Rotary club asked me to head a task force to find a new fundraiser,” Wilkins says. The club’s longstanding charity event, an art show and sale, hadn’t been raising enough to meet the growing needs of Denver Kids.
“I started looking into different sports,” says Wilkins, who grew up rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers, including Robinson and feisty general manager Rickey. “It was around the time the Rockies got the franchise for baseball in Denver, so I went to the Denver library and looked up baseball awards. Everything was covered: most home runs, hits, everything. Because of our motto, Service Above Self, I thought it would be natural to highlight service.” He put together a short list of great baseball names but kept coming back to Rickey.
“Branch Rickey didn’t have anything named after him, yet he was this monumental figure,” Wilkins says. Coincidentally, a club member, John Andrews Sr., had lived next door to Rickey growing up. Andrews contacted the Rickey family, who have been supportive of the award ever since.
The Denver club asked Colorado artist George Lundeen to create a 30-inch statue called The Player to present to award winners. A 9-foot-6-inch bronze version now stands outside the Colorado Rockies’ Coors Field.
The money raised from the event goes to the Denver club’s foundation, which gives Denver Kids $145,000 each year. Denver Kids, with an annual budget of $1 million, needs “about $1,000 per child per year, for 1,000 children,” says Donna Hultin, its recently retired CEO.
Helping students graduate
Through the organization, Hultin says, at-risk children from kindergarten through high school are provided with counselors and mentors so they receive the academic help and cultural enrichment they need to graduate high school and succeed.
Introducing the students to the Rickey award-winning baseball stars is an important part of the activities surrounding the event, Wilkins says. When Victorino talked with the kids, he revealed that he had been mocked at school for his small size, and that he’d thought he wouldn’t amount to much.
Across Denver Public Schools, 50 percent of students graduate from high school. For Denver Kids, that figure is 90 percent. The program has begun to focus on empowering participants to go to college.
But the challenges are growing, Hultin says. The poverty rate is up, as is the number of children at risk for dropping out. “The schools would like us to work with more kids,” she says. “But we can’t compromise. We’re able to serve more kids only with additional funding.”
Providentially, the 2011 auction was the best yet, and the entire event netted $58,000
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