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Yanks' HOPE Week touches hearts across New York

Five-day event recognizes important community work being done

NEW YORK -- On Friday, the Yankees invited the HOPE Week alumni from 2009-2012 back to Yankee Stadium for a reunion.

They spent the previous five days inducting new members.

NEW YORK -- On Friday, the Yankees invited the HOPE Week alumni from 2009-2012 back to Yankee Stadium for a reunion.

They spent the previous five days inducting new members.

The Yankees completed their fifth annual HOPE Week (Helping Others Persevere & Excel) on Friday, spending the week reaching out to families, individuals or groups whose work in the community should be recognized.

To kick off HOPE Week, pitchers Ivan Nova, Preston Claiborne, Adam Warren, outfielder Zoilo Almonte, and infielders David Adams and Alberto Gonzalez went to St. Rose of Lima School in Massapequa, N.Y., to join the Rockaway Athletes -- a local chapter of the Special Olympics -- to play friendly games of basketball, kickball and Wiffle ball.

The group had called St. Camillus-St. Virgilius Parish home for the first 17 years of its existence, but Superstorm Sandy destroyed the gymnasium there. After trying out St. Francis in the Bronx, the group finally settled into a new home in Rockaway.

"I really didn't realize how important it was to them," one of the group leaders, Joe Featherston, said. "That it was their social network, and for many of them, really their only social network."

The Yankees continued their work with children on Tuesday, visiting a Ronald McDonald House in New York. There, manager Joe Girardi, second baseman Robinson Cano, pitcher David Robertson, shortstop Eduardo Nunez and outfielder Vernon Wells met Autumn Blinn, the 10-year-old founder of Pillows of Love.

Blinn has made more than 300 pillows last year, and she donates the pillows to sick children and adults.

"We think it's amazing what you do," Girardi told Blinn. "And we want to be part of what you do."

On Wednesday the Yankees visited New Beginnings Animal Rescue in the Bronx, where Pedro Rosario and his dedicated staff help rehabilitate and find homes for sheltered animals. Rosario currently has 35 dogs and 50 cats living in his shelter, and he works tirelessly to care for and train the animals in the hopes they will be adopted by loving owners.

"That's what we're all about," Rosario said. "When an animal comes, however, they come, we're able to help put them where they belong health-wise, weight-wise, issue-wise, and make sure they get the right home."

Outfielders Brett Gardner and Ichiro Suzuki, and reliever Shawn Kelly accompanied general partner Jennifer Steinbrenner Swindal to the shelter, bringing dog food, taking a tour of the facility and helping Rosario out with some of his daily chores.

"I know what it means to have a dog be so close to you and be such an important member of your family," Gardner said. "Hopefully we can bring a little awareness to what's going on out here and help these dogs find a home."

The Yankees gave a group of local children a birthday surprise they would never forget on Thursday. Hosting some kids from Birthday Wishes, a nonprofit group that aims to help homeless children build self-esteem by ensuring their birthdays are recognized and celebrated, the Yankees gave them a tour of the field before bringing them up to Suite 62 for a surprise party in their honor.

The children's eyes opened wide and their mouths hung open as they walked into the room, as pitchers Mariano Rivera, CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes, David Phelps, catcher Chris Stewart and bullpen coach Mike Harkey were standing there to wish them a happy birthday. There was food, candy, memorabilia and gifts, as well as a magician, a keyboard the kids could play with and artists spray-painting the kids' names on T-shirts and hats.

"Seeing how excited they are now, to be getting all the gifts and the candy and everything, it's a lot of fun," Sabathia said. "To be able to make this day special for them is cool for us."

"They'll never forget this day," said Lisa Vasiloff, one of the founders of Birthday Wishes. "I'll never forget this day."

The Yankees finished HOPE Week on a more emotional note, inviting Kirk Smalley and Stand For The Silent to Yankee Stadium to deliver his anti-bullying message. Smalley started giving these speeches after his 11-year-old son, Ty, committed suicide after dealing with bullies at school.

"Bullying touches hearts and lives and ruins hearts and lives everywhere," Smalley said. "You never know when this can happen to someone you care about, someone you love. It truly can happen to anyone."

Andy Pettitte, Boone Logan, Joba Chamberlain, Lyle Overbay, Austin Romine, Travis Hafner, general manager Brian Cashman, Steinbrenner Swindal and the professional wrestler "Big Show" all sat on stage during Smalley's speech, some of them fighting back tears.

"It's tough," Pettitte said. "You try to hold the tears back. That's what it is. You see a man's pain."

HOPE Week is based on the idea that acts of goodwill provide hope and encouragement for the recipient, as well as others who are inspired by the gesture. For Yankees players, it's an honor to get to bring joy to someone's life, even if it's just for one day.

"We've been blessed with so many things in our lives, so anytime we can give back, it's kind of our duty," Phelps said. "We're glad to do it. Any chance we get, we're glad to do it."

Josh Vitale is an associate reporter for

New York Yankees