Rookie League tees off lifetime of benefits

Youngsters across Canada learn teamwork, self-esteem and more at annual day camp

Rookie League tees off lifetime of benefits

TORONTO -- The sun was shining and the kids were smiling as Jays Care -- the charitable arm of the Blue Jays -- kicked off their 28th season of Rookie League on Thursday morning.

A summer-long baseball day camp program for kids, Rookie League runs in partnership with Toronto Community Housing (TCH) and has been a staple across the country for the past 28 years. The aim of Rookie League is to use the game of baseball as a tool, allowing children to develop skills of teamwork, cooperation, self-esteem and resiliency.

Thursday's opening event took place at Centennial Park in Etobicoke, Ontario, with upwards of 1,200 participants from 43 Toronto neighbourhoods taking part. Campers took part in many baseball and team-building activities, before a special address from former Blue Jays catcher and manager Buck Martinez, TCH president and CEO Greg Spearn, as well as Robert Witchel, the executive director of Jays Care.

"I think this program is a reminder of how far reaching sports can be in general," said Martinez, who played six of his 17 Major League seasons with the Blue Jays. "So many of these kids live vicariously through the baseball stars. They have a lot of pride to be able to say, 'The Blue Jays are doing great, and that's my team, that's my country's team.' It gives them an identity that they're part of this great surge.

"To be involved with these kids who don't get these opportunities on a daily basis, it's an easy thing to do. We're all kids at heart, and we're fortunate to be part of this kids' game that has become our life's work."

Former Blue Jays catcher and manager Buck Martinez addressed the campers. (Blue Jays)

Participants were given Blue Jays hats, shirts, backpacks, gloves and water bottles, and were sorted into different teams for the season. Numerous volunteers and youth staffers also had the opportunity to help out with the event, many of whom are former participants of the program itself.

"A number of the kids get to socialize together and learn to work together, which gives them some additional valuable life skills," explained Spearn, who has spent four years with TCH, which is the largest social housing provider in Canada and the second largest in North America. "A lot of these kids do it multiple years and then when they get older they would like to be counselors, so we hire them back and they get another perspective on it.

"Now they're role models to kids like themselves a few years back. That's a really strong and valuable life skill, and when they do that they're also learning how to get employed as well as the discipline around working. It really is an evolution of somebody's growth in life."

Rookie League's long-standing goals have been to enhance life skills and the physical health of marginalized children, as well as enhance the employment skills and positive self-identity of the youth in the community. Partnering with like-minded organizations such as TCH has allowed Rookie League members to develop and grow in a safe environment every day of the summer. While the members themselves have changed over the years, the core values remain the same. Rookie League impacted an all-time high of more than 8,000 youth participants across Canada in 2015, a number Jays Care believes can be increased with continued dedication and commitment.

"What I see is a great deal of potential," Witchel said. "Every kid here, no matter where they live, has the same amount of potential. This isn't something we're doing to put a Band-Aid on any situations they're facing, but it's to give them self-confidence, build up their resiliency and let them feel loved; let them know we believe in them and the world's their oyster. We're going to do everything we can to continue to build, and we're extremely excited for what's in store this summer."

Alykhan Ravjiani is a reporter for MLB.com based in Toronto. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.