From a cramped office in midtown, the Jackie Robinson Foundation has moved to a spacious location at the corner of Canal and Varick Streets, a district that is part of a renovation of the downtown neighborhood deeply wounded by the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001.
The Foundation was begun 35 years ago by Rachel Robinson, Jackie's widow, to provide college scholarships and leadership training to minority students. This year, there are 259 students receiving more than $3 million in support for their educations. The Foundation takes pride in the fact that 97 percent of the students enrolled graduate, which is more than twice the national average for minority students.
The continued growth of the non-profit organization funded by generous donations from Major League Baseball and other prominent businesses demanded a more expansive headquarters. The property at 1 Hudson Square features state-of-the-art office amenities and serves as a working area and gathering place for scholars and alumni to counsel one another and share information and experiences.
Della Britton Baeza, president and chief executive officer of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, likens the atmosphere to that of a fraternity, although its purpose is more serious. In an increasingly diversified society, the Foundation can be a clearing house for potential doctors, lawyers, politicians, diplomats, engineers, financial advisers and artists.
"Any given day, we'll have scholars or alumni dropping by to pick up something or ask about opportunities," Baeza said. "At this time of year, we have a lot of our recent graduates interviewing in New York City, so this is a stop-off point. They'll come by to let us know about interviews they have scheduled and what advice we might have."
The JRF offices are on the second floor. There are various conference rooms along the outer walls and workspaces in the middle of the room. The lobby is an expansive room that can fit 75 people comfortably and will be used for receptions and other events. When the Foundation was located at 35th Street and Fifth Avenue, it was too small to accommodate large functions.
"When we have the scholars in the city, we also have alumni, and they used to have to do their events away from the office," Baeza said. "Now with the extra space, all that can be here, instead of having to pay for another space. We used to always have to rent space. In the last few years, ESPN was very generous at giving us ESPN Zone in Times Square to host our Jackie Robinson Birthdays, a small event for about 100 people that we have in January [Jackie's birthday was Jan. 31]. This year, we could have it here."
During business hours, it is common for scholars or alumni visiting the city to stop by the office.
"What's so nice about this place is they can plop down and plug in their computers and do work while they're waiting to meet with somebody," Baeza said. "It's a place to come. It's almost like a club. We've been trying to foster more and more involvement on the part of our alumni. That's as valuable a part of our family as our current scholars.
"We are very much not only in touch with our alumni, but they also help us to mentor our current scholars. They serve as role models. It is very much like a fraternity, although our mission is a bit grander and we think more fundamental than a fraternity but the familial sense and in the sense of belonging to something is very much part of this organization."
The large front room will also serve as a site for seminars on career development, professional communications and practical life skills. Next month, the alumni chapter in New York will hold continuing education seminars. One topic will be the mortgage crisis with Patricia Barksdale, from Merrill Lynch, as a guest speaker.
"The seminars will be in the evening when the staff is gone, and they can use that great hall," Baeza said. "One of the first ones is about the mortgage crisis with one of our partnering corporations. That will probably be the first significant financial project that these young people will undertake, buying their first home after they graduate or thinking about buying a condominium in the city. So she'll talk about how to read the fine print and talk about what the conditions of your loan are."
Eventually, one wall of that front room will be replaced by an entrance to a staircase that will lead down to the Jackie Robinson Museum, which is being funded in large part by contributions from the Mets, the Yankees, the Yawkey Foundation and Citi.
"Citi is honored to support the Jackie Robinson Foundation and its plans for this magnificent museum," Citi vice president Lew Kaden said. "Jackie left an indelible mark on our national pastime and our country as a whole. It is important that his legacy be passed on for generations to come. Citi can think of no better way to accomplish this than through the efforts of the Jackie Robinson Foundation and Museum."
The Museum is being designed by Ralph Applebaum, who also designed the Constitution Center in Philadelphia and the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. The 11,000 square foot, pantheon-style structure will showcase Jackie Robinson's life not only as a player who integrated Major League Baseball but also the contributions his leadership qualities had in the civil rights movement.
Those elements are the Foundation's, well, foundation. The scholars are carriers in a way of the Jackie Robinson message, which centers on the importance of community involvement.
"Jackie was about setting an example, and it is expected of these kids," Baeza said. "These 259 people we describe as ambassadors of Jackie Robinson, carrying the torch. And we require our scholars to do community service. You have to write a report every year and have to quantify the number of lives you have touched, you know, 'Life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives,' Jackie's famous quote. We say to them, 'How many people's lives did you touch?' So they are our foot soldiers who spread the values we have exposed to them and endeavor to convey what Jackie Robinson and Rachel Robinson have exhibited: discipline, integrity, courage, perseverance, will for excellence."
And the projects continue to expand.
The recently launched, $25 million "Legacy Campaign" is designed to ensure that Jackie Robinson's legacy continues to inspire future generations through the Foundation's Education and Leadership Development Program. The "Extra Innings" program the past two years has provided graduate-school support, with 12 students currently receiving $10,000 scholarships for grad school. The Rachel Robison International Fellowship Program encourages scholars through funding as well as teaming them up with other organizations to do community service or internship abroad.
"The reason why we anticipate such growth is because there is an initiative that is very clear on the part of corporate America to diversity their workforce," Baeza said. "And we view ourselves as a viable and a vital resource for those corporations because we are preparing a pipeline of well-prepared, motivated young people who "get it." So we constantly talk to our scholars about making sure they are equipping themselves with the tools that allow you to add value wherever you go.
"When we get corporations to support us, we don't necessarily promise them that they're going to get an intern to come and work for them, but more and more they ask for that. Corporations are aligning their business interests with their charitable giving. And the way the Jackie Robinson Foundation fits into that is that we are a provider from a human resources standpoint. America is seeing that we're going to have to be diversified to compete globally."
Jack O'Connell is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.