TORONTO -- Jays Care Foundation and Ronald McDonald House Toronto have been close partners over the years. They share a lot of the same goals, so it made perfect sense for the charitable organizations to reunite during the holiday season.
Jays Care spread some festive cheer by sending 14 representatives to Ronald McDonald House as part of their Home for Dinner program. They served dinner to 81 families and approximately 135 people at a time of the year when everybody could use an emotional lift.
It's a small gesture in the grand scheme of things, but one that comes with significance. These families are at Ronald McDonald House because a child is seriously ill, and it's crucial to create a positive environment.
"I think when you're going through complicated health issues, knowing that people are thinking of you is a great respite, and knowing that it's the Blue Jays who are helping out is really exciting for the families," Jays Care executive director Robert Witchel said.
"A lot of these families have to give up jobs or they're absent from their jobs, and it's a huge financial impact. I think this lightens their load and it's also really exciting for the kids to know and the families to know that the Blue Jays are doing this for them."
Jays Care started by going grocery shopping for a chicken parmesan dinner over pasta, with the choice of either a red or white sauce. They prepared and served the food to give the 81 families a little taste of home.
Jays Care has been participating in Ronald McDonald House's Home for Dinner program for the last five years. The two sides have a partnership going back almost two decades, and Jays Care has donated more than $250,000 to the cause. The biggest donation came in 2012, when Jays Care gave $150,000 to Ronald McDonald House as part of its Field of Dreams grant program.
The money was used to build an indoor play area for children and families who are staying at Ronald McDonald House. It continues to be supported today, and with branding from Jays Care and the Blue Jays' organization, it's also an area to escape the reality of living at the hospital. The focus is on having fun.
"Families are staying at Ronald McDonald House, and a lot of the kids who are receiving treatment still want the opportunity to play. And for Jays Care, we believe that playing is learning," Witchel said. "For kids, if you're not going to play, you're not going to develop into a proper functioning adult, so we were happy to make that investment. And every year since then, we've gone back to visit."
There are several new programs in the works, and Jays Care has budgeted a record $6 million to invest in marginalized youth across the country. The mission, as always, is to build safe spaces in which children can play while supporting other organizations dedicated to improving the lives of Canadian youth.
One of the beneficiaries is Home Run Scholars, which is an after-school program that begins in January. It will be in 24 Toronto Community Housing locations and run three days a week from 3:30-7:30 p.m. ET. The initiative is an extension of the summer Rookie League that Jays Care runs for Toronto Community Housing. In that program, more than 1,200 children participate five days a week over seven weeks in the summer. Jays Care also hires older youth from Toronto Community Housing to work as counselors and provide guidance along the way.
"The kids get healthy snacks and an hour of physical activity, an hour of homework and help; it's all designed, again, to keep the kids successful in school," Witchel said of Home Run Scholars. "Help them be successful in school and also develop healthy habits, like physical activity that we know and research shows, if you're active as a kid, you're going to be active as an adult. Try to get those habits formed and instill a love of sport and physical activity so that they'll be healthier when they grow up."
Gregor Chisholm has covered the Blue Jays for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB and Facebook, and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.