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Rays have a strong investment in the community
ST. PETERSBURG -- Helping out in the community and building community partners has been the Rays' mantra since Stuart Sternberg's group took over after the 2005 season.

And once again in 2012, the organization's actions spoke louder than its words.

The Rays Baseball Foundation is the charitable arm of the club, and its primary focus is on youth and education programs in the Tampa Bay area.

The Foundation is funded through three main revenue streams: owner contributions, player contributions -- all the players who signed long-term contracts donate to the Foundation -- and fundraising events throughout the year.

"Our big highlight program this year that we kicked off was our Rays Helios Scholarship Program," said Suzanne Murchland, senior director of community relations. "The Rays Baseball Foundation and the Helios Education Foundation partnered up and made a $1 million commitment to scholarships to students in the Tampa Bay area through the Take Stock in Children program."

Murchland explained that the program involves a five-year commitment over which time the $1 million will be spread.

"The nice thing is the Take Stock in Children program exists throughout the state of Florida," Murchland said. "We partnered with the chapters in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Manatee and Sarasota. So scholarships are going out in five communities over the next five years."

The Take Stock in Children program awards scholarships around the middle school area -- every program is a little different. But the kids who are awarded the scholarships pledge to maintain a good GPA, stay out of trouble and not engage in drugs. And if all of those things happen, then at the end of their high school years they'll have that money for scholarships.

"The Take Stock in Children program, I think, is unique and really impactful because it's awarded to kids at such an early age that it keeps them focused on that post-secondary goal," Murchland said.

A summer reading program called Reading with the Rays enjoyed its fifth successful summer and remains huge. The incentive-based reading program runs in five counties.

"We partner with the library districts and kids can go to their library and get their game card that has a baseball field on it," Murchland said. "For the hours they read, they circle the bases on their game card and they collect prizes as they go.

"If they read three hours, they get to first base and they can collect a prize. If they read five more hours, they get to second base. And that has just continued to be such a popular program. And we see more and more kids participating every year."

Murchland said the program continues to be "very impactful".

"What we hear from educators and the school district is that kids lose some of their reading skills over the summer because they are not engaged in reading -- they're doing other things," Murchland said. "And so we felt strongly that we were the right partner to bring summer reading to light and do something fun because our season runs through the summer months."

Rays outfielder Matt Joyce, a Hillsborough County product, was the player sponsor this year.

"So he went to a couple of libraries and read to kids," Murchland said. "[He] kicked off the program, continued to encourage them to read over the summer, and that's gone really, really well. So it continues to grow every year."

The Rays' South St. Petersburg Neighborhood Initiative program continued to thrive as well, particularly The Dugout Club, which involved Rays players David Price, B.J. Upton and Desmond Jennings, who were all sponsors.

"Those three players adopt two to three South St. Petersburg recreation centers over the summer," Murchland said. "They visit the kids, talking to them about staying smart, staying active, staying healthy, doing the right things. And in each recreation center, the player kind of forms a club. There was 'B.J.'s Bunch,' 'Jennings' Juniors,' and 'Price's Pals.'

"They create a fun little club. They talk to the kids about good character traits. They bring the kids to a game over the summer. They send Raymond out to the recreational center over the summer. So they're sort of [in] constant engagement over the summer to send messages to the kids about staying smart, staying healthy, and active."

Murchland noted that each player also gives an "angel fund" to the different recreation centers, as some kids had not been able to participate in programs at the recreation centers in the past due to finances.

The Dugout Club is a big part of the South St. Petersburg Initiative, which also includes a Big Brothers-Big Sisters program participated in by Rays employees.

Murchland saluted the work of the wives of those on the team this season as well.

"The wives' efforts in the community this year went really well, because they did a successful fashion show for Children's Dream Fund and they also did a Mystery Ball Sale that raised $35,000 for All Children's Hospital," Murchland said. "[The Mystery Ball Sale] continues to grow. That's a really popular event. They have a lot of fun with that."

Manager Joe Maddon will once again open up to the community with his annual Thanksmas at various sites in the Tampa Bay area. During these events, Maddon supervises the cooking, and he gets a lot of help from the club's staff -- current and former players, coaches, broadcasters and their families, who do the serving to the less fortunate.

Maddon cooks the family meatball and sausage recipe and does all the shopping. He then brings in people to help him do all of the cooking, which they do at Tropicana Field.

"We're always kind of looking at where communities need us," Murchland said. "How can we engage, especially as it relates to children, because youth and education is the focus for the Rays Baseball Foundation, so we always want to make sure that we're keeping tabs on needs and how we can engage with the community with our corporate partners so we can have that impact on the community."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for

Tampa Bay Rays