The Reds Community Fund’s Home Base Program returned for its third edition last week.
After COVID-19 forced the cancellation of so many Reds and RCF initiatives in 2020, including Home Base, the program resumed this year with a few changes and some special guests.
The brainchild of RCF outreach manager Colleen Cheek, Home Base is a comprehensive, week-long camp for high school baseball and softball players that combines individualized athletic training with academic test preparation and life skills development. It was constructed in partnership with Major League Baseball’s Youth Development Foundation and the University of Cincinnati.
During this immersive experience, 42 student-athletes spent Monday through Friday at the P&G MLB Cincinnati Reds Youth Academy. Throughout the day, attendees participated in sessions ranging from team building exercises, yoga and mental health to ACT test prep and car essentials (working with the Jeff Wyler Automotive group to learn how to change oil and tires). Each participant was paired with an adult mentor during the dinner hour for the first four nights. After dinner, the final three-plus hours of each day were dedicated to baseball and softball training. The camp culminated with a night out at Great American Ball Park in a private suite for last Friday’s Reds vs. Cubs game.
In the past, the itinerary included daytime programming and overnight dormitory housing at the University of Cincinnati. The on-campus experience provided the kids with a taste of college life and introduced them to the type of independence and responsibility required beyond high school, especially for those who might need to find the proper balance between schoolwork and athletics. But with UC still abiding by certain COVID restrictions, the overnight element was removed for this year. That meant the group spent full days -- 13 hours -- at the Reds Youth Academy being challenged physically and mentally.
“You would think that they’d be tired, but they’re always excited,” former Reds player Dmitri Young said. “They are going hard at it because it’s goal-oriented. They’re looking at their future and how to get to college, and these kids want it.”
Young, along with Reds Hall of Famers Tom Browning and George Foster, helped lead the baseball activities. Meanwhile, the softball staff included former national champion Destinee Martinez and current professional softball star and LSU legend, AJ Andrews. Mentors from the Reds' front office and throughout the community were also on hand each night to provide guidance and support to the student-athletes. While the teenagers embraced these new connections and the break from the busy schedule, the mentors found themselves enjoying the experience just as much, if not more.
“This is my third year being a mentor,” Reds employee Jon Myers said. “As a mentor over the years, in just that short week, I have created friendships that have lasted far past the program. During the conversations at dinner, you get to hear about how much enjoyment the mentee is having, and it makes it all worth it.”
Myers’ coworker, Jake Eby, felt similar in his first year as a mentor.
“Being my first year taking part in the Home Base program, I didn’t know what to expect. After finishing the training and immediately after meeting my mentee, I realized just how unique and special this program really is,” Eby said. “What I love is that it gives us a chance to inspire and help guide our mentees as they get ready to embark on their next chapter in life. I’ve learned so much from this program and feel as if I got just as much out of it as my mentee did. I look forward to continuing this friendship far after the program ends.”
In lieu of the roles occupied by UC students the first two years, six former Home Base participants served as peer counselors. They helped guide the students throughout the challenging schedule, provided perspective and support, and created a positive and inclusive environment. Having been through it themselves, they could relate to the attendees and what was being demanded of them.
Kejuan McDaniel-Watts, a Withrow High School graduate heading to Wright State University this fall, was one of the counselors. Having attended the program’s first two years, he knew what the high schoolers were going through and how to relate to them.
“When I did Home Base my first year, I was doing it because my mom wanted me to. But when I really got the feel for it and started to learn some things I didn’t know, it really started to matter,” he said. “The hardest part is staying focused, actively listening and being present, so that’s what I try to stress to them. The tutors and teachers do a great job explaining the content and helping. I wish I had picked that up sooner, but that’s why I try to make sure they are paying attention because it really does pay off.”
For McDaniel-Watts, it paid off in a big way. As a high school student, the Reds Youth Academy was his home away from home. He was there every day after school, attending every seminar and participating in every volunteer opportunity possible. He is the RCF’s Academy Member of the Year, earned a Cincinnati RBI scholarship and saw his ACT score jump up nine points from his first test to his third.
“The ACT boot camp afterward helped me a lot,” he said. “I just wanted to let them know that while it may seem to drag at times, it really does help you. I don’t think my score would have jumped if I hadn’t attended Home Base and then the boot camp. Knowing the content is one thing, but the other stuff like time management and those other things you don’t learn in school are really important.”
What McDaniel-Watts took away from Home Base as a participant and now as a mentor is exactly what Reds president and COO Phil Castellini had in mind with this type of programming. While one of the original visions of the Reds Youth Academy was to find the next Barry Larkin, he recognizes that isn’t a fair way to measure the success of these programs.
“That you’re here today shows you’re smart enough to take advantage of the opportunities presented to you by programs like this and facilities like ours,” Castellini told the group at the Home Base kick-off. “And that’s really what this program focuses on: what we call Major League citizens. We want to focus on taking kids to the next level, and not just through sport. Opportunities can be born through the game, but that may not be what the next level means to you, hopefully the future leaders of this city.”
Larkin, who has assumed a special assistant role in the organization in addition to offering color commentary on TV for home games and helping lead diversity initiatives for the Reds, echoed Castellini’s words.
“The future of our city and the future of baseball is in you,” he told them. “I’m encouraging you to take full advantage of your opportunities. Ask questions, take it all in. Ninety-eight percent of people that participate in sports will turn pro in something other than sports. But what sports does for you is give you a framework on how to be a productive citizen in your community wherever that is, and hopefully it’s right here in Cincinnati.”
In addition to hearing from Reds executives and former players, the campers received a very special surprise when Reds first baseman Joey Votto stopped by last Wednesday to spend some time with them. He asked about their experience with Home Base and commended their efforts having seen the grind of their daily schedule. Then he fielded questions until he had to make his way to the ballpark for that night’s game.
While his experiences as a Major Leaguer certainly differs from the high schoolers, Votto still found plenty of common ground as people and players. Leaning into the part of the game that you enjoy the most and identifying the different versions of leadership and what it takes to be a good teammate were just a few of the topics Votto covered.
A final group of special guests this year included the family of late Reds infielder/outfielder Ryan Freel. Freel’s mom Norma, widow Christie and three daughters Ava, Alex and Aliana participated in the welcome ceremony and stopped by throughout the week. At the start of the camp, RCF executive director Charley Frank announced that one male and one female would be presented the Ryan Freel Spirit Award at the end of the program.
“He was someone who played with so much heart, hustle and passion,” Frank said of Freel. “You don’t necessarily have to be the top baseball or softball player -- we are looking for that special person that just has that energy to help others, ask questions, maximize this experience and get into the whole spirit of this week.”
After a challenging but rewarding week with many deserving candidates, Cohen Hackney and Amelia “Mea” Tyson each took home the award to cap off another successful year of Home Base.