CHICAGO -- Jose Abreu was billed as a special visitor to the Easter Seals Therapeutic School and Center for Autism Research on Tuesday afternoon on the West Side of Chicago.But one look at the emotional reaction from the children upon seeing the White Sox first baseman, one look at their
CHICAGO -- Jose Abreu was billed as a special visitor to the Easter Seals Therapeutic School and Center for Autism Research on Tuesday afternoon on the West Side of Chicago.
But one look at the emotional reaction from the children upon seeing the White Sox first baseman, one look at their genuine excitement and joy, and it was clear Abreu was more like a family member visiting.
"These kids, they feel like he's their personal friend," said Christine O'Reilly-Riordan, the White Sox vice president of community relations, who was also at the school. "This is their Jose, their buddy, their good guy coming to spend time with them."
"My mom was the one who taught me to take care of the people in need. I just wanted to share that," said Abreu through interpreter Billy Russo. "I just want to expand that message that my mom gave to me. I'm just happy. I'm glad to have this opportunity."
This event launched the fourth year of Abreu's Amigos, the philanthropic program launched in 2015 to share Abreu's passion for supporting children with special needs. Abreu wanted to give back as soon as he joined the White Sox, and O'Reilly-Riordan mentioned the organization's knowledge of a special relationship Abreu had with a young boy with special needs in Cuba and how he reached out at his first Spring Training to another child visiting with special needs.
A longstanding relationship existed between the White Sox and Easter Seals, and the White Sox thought this would be a great connection for Abreu.
Tuesday's get together opened with a meeting of the "Good Guys," a group of Easter Seals students working on social skills, friendship and anti-bullying. Abreu joined in the lively session, where he was asked about why he picked baseball (it's what he loves and what his mom loves), where he lives (Chicago) and what music he listens to before a game (Lionel Richie).
Abreu stopped briefly to talk to the media after the Good Guys group. A student holding his hand didn't want to let go of his friend, until Abreu gave him a reassuring hug and kiss on the forehead.
Before a closing pizza party, Abreu went into a neighboring classroom where his friend and Easter Seals student Ari warmly greeted him. Ari jumped into Abreu's arms like two old friends reuniting.
"He's a little kid with a lot of heart and joy," said Abreu of Ari. "Every time that I'm around him, every time that I see him, it's like he's my son too.
"I'm in those shoes right now as a father, and I know how difficult it is to have a baby and to raise a baby. It's tough just to think about all the struggles and the difficulties that their parents have to pass through. But like I always said, the most important thing is he's healthy and he's a really strong and joyful kid."
That special connection represents the bond Abreu has formed over the years with these children. He went around to each student in the classroom and warmly greeted them, taking home a handful of thank you cards as well as countless warm memories and a little bit of pizza.
"What strikes me the most is that they are growing up, they are getting older, and then they are able to recognize me," Abreu said. "That's something that made me feel real comfortable and happy. That's something that you really care about. It's special for me just to see them growing up and doing better."
Scott Merkin has covered the White Sox for MLB.com since 2003. Read his blog, Merk's Works, follow him on Twitter @scottmerkin, on Facebook and listen to his podcast.