"It was very heartwarming to see these players interact with the patients and then, to see their reactions -- I could tell some of them were getting choked up," said Jamie Lynn Parker, 34, the public relations specialist for the hospital. "It brings home how lucky you are to be healthy, and these kids look up to you as role models. These kids want to be just like these players, whether it's in sports or anything in life. I think, honestly, it's just as meaningful to them as it is to the kids."
Parker knows full well what a visit like this from professional athletes can do because she is a former patient at Shriners. After being diagnosed with congenital muscular dystrophy at birth, Parker made several visits to the Shriners Hospital in her hometown of Erie, Pa., before her family moved to Cape Coral, Fla.
"I can relate to these children because I was in a similar situation," said Parker, who graduated from the University of South Florida in Tampa. "These visits make me proud to be a part of, because I have gone through the system as a patient, and to now be working here and to be a part of giving back just like these players are doing is special."
Venditte, 26, who throws the ball with his right and left hand, said the visit hit home personally because his cousin has cerebral palsy.
"These kids are so strong and so inspiring and it just puts life into perspective," said Venditte, who was pitching for Triple-A affiliate Scranton/Wilkes-Barre before being diagnosed with a torn right labrum. "To see kids what these kids go through on a daily basis opens your eyes to what perseverance means. I'm sure they're extremely happy to have us make a visit, but I think it leaves a bigger impact on us."
The Shriners Hospital in Tampa is one of 194 in the world, including chapters in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, The Philippines, Puerto Rico, the Republic of Panama and Germany. Shriners is dedicated to providing medical and rehabilitative services to children with congenital deformities and conditions, problems resulting from orthopedic injuries, and diseases of the neuromusculoskeletal system.
The players spent about two hours at the hospital on Wednesday, bringing the kids gift bags that included Yankees hats, baseballs, piggy banks and water bottles.
One of those children was Bryan Koffel, 13, who has cerebral palsy and has been playing in the North Lake Miracle Baseball League for the past three years.
"It's very special for him because he's such a big baseball fan," said Kristina Koffel, who is Bryan's mother. "It made my day as well."
Itala Perez, 47, whose 15-year-old son, Christian, has been going to Shriners for 10 years, said the surprise visit by the players is a change of pace for the kids and leaves a lasting impact on them.
"Young people, especially kids here, are rarely exposed to professional athletes, and when they do things like this, it shows their human side," Perez said. "It means something big for everyone -- the kids, the parents, the hospital staff and the players, too."
Tara Deering, 34, the child life senior therapist for Shriners, said the players made an instant impression and it did wonders to have them interact with the children.
"For example, there was a patient today that was really nervous about going to surgery and thinking about what was going to happen, and then the players came in and he got a chance to interact with them and it took his mind off of it," said Deering, who is in her 12th year at the hospital. "It was really great to see him be calm and relaxed and not worry about his surgery. He even put his hat on and left it on when he went up to surgery."
Deering also said parents enjoyed the visit because of the New York connection.
"At least three of the parents we met were big Yankees fans, and they were talking about where they grew up in New York and how they went to games at Yankee Stadium, and how they are excited to go see them play in Tampa," Deering said.
The HOPE Week continues on Thursday when Yankees Minor Leaguers visit the Children's Home for Foster Children in Tampa.