On a warm March day in Fort Myers, Florida, at JetBlue Park, the site of Red Sox spring training, baseball fanatics from around the country take in the blue skies, purchase Red Sox memorabilia and smell the hot dogs, peanuts, and roasted peppers.
Inside the stadium, the park has green monster walls, Alabama crimson gravel, and checkerboard cut grass. The sounds of patrons cheering and bats cracking engulf JetBlue. It feels like Fenway, but it’s not.
Spring training baseball is an escape for both the players and the fans. Aficionados on the East Coast can flee the harsh winters as they await the new season. The players and coaches are reunited and ready to work again as a team along Florida’s West Coast.
The Red Sox fans and players aren’t the only ones who enjoy a great escape. Joe Wilcher and his son Austin, who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, were also in attendance. Austin’s disease is one which results in muscle weakness to the entire body, restricting his mobility. Joe and Austin saw the game as a unique opportunity to represent Jett Foundation, a nonprofit from Plymouth, Massachusetts, which provides programs, tools, and resources to improve the lives of families who have children with Duchenne.
“Life is pretty hard day to day,” Joe said.“It’s a struggle for them. When they struggle, we struggle. And to get a little break like this, to be around others, it’s a great thing to do. It’s a little break. When your job is 24/7, a little break is a nice thing.”
A few steps between the Team Store and a life-sized lego statue of David Ortiz, there’s a stand adorned with a long whiteboard stretching across its top. Written in a red Expo marker are the words: Valerie’s House. Underneath the whiteboard and dispersed on a table were the organization’s informational leaflets, teddy bears, and multi-colored painted styrofoam masks. Taped to the pole holding the stand together was a sign labeled “Colors of Emotions.”
Valerie’s House and Jett Foundation are just a couple of the many nonprofit organizations which were honored by the Red Sox during their 2018 spring training season. Established in 2011, the JetBlue Community Corner initiative provides organizations from both the New England and Southwest Florida areas the ability to spread awareness to fans, along with the opportunity to invite some of the people they serve the chance to attend a game for free.
Founded by Angela Melvin, Valerie’s House serves children, adolescents, and their caregivers, grieving from the loss of someone special in their lives. The organization provides support to around 70 families through potluck dinners, backyard sports, and art projects. Program coordinator Allyson O’Brien explained that in their art projects, young people use colors to express their emotions, indicating when they feel worried or alone.
Near the community corner display, middle school math teacher and father Shon Wells looked over at his son, watching him run around with his friend who he met at Valerie’s house. Shon described how the programming at Valerie’s House has provided his son Caleb an invaluable experience.
“The biggest thing I’ve seen in the boys is that they don’t feel so isolated and alone,” he said. “Because every kid that’s in that group with them knows exactly what it is to have mom or dad die. It’s given them a way to try to heal as best as they can at this point. To share, to be with people that they can speak freely with. They love it. They absolutely love it.”
Valerie’s House has been no stranger to the Boston Red Sox community. It received a $5,000 donation from the baseball team in 2016, and a few months earlier, team member Blake Swihart and mascot Wally the Green Monster visited the house.
“A sports teams’ image is a community, a team, and a family,” Allyson of Valerie’s House said. “They want to give back in the same way and become a family with their community. That’s what all of us as nonprofits are, each our own little big family, and that’s a really big thing that sports teams have in common. The kids look up to the sports players. They look up to who they are, their skills and their talents.”
Alex Lowe, a 21-year-old young man with Duchenne, attended a spring training game that weekend on behalf of Jett Foundation. While he is isn’t a huge baseball fan, Alex adores hometown hero Dwyane Wade. The Miami Heat fanatic acknowledges the role athletes have in society to give back.
“I love athletes,” he said. “I love and respect them. I think they are a wonderful part of our community. They are just regular people like us. Just trying to have fun, doing what they love for a living. There’s a lot of problems going on in our world and our community, and I feel like athletes can use their platform to promote certain causes.”
While the support from the Red Sox to their Jett Foundation community is crucial, Austin’s father Joe appreciates the opportunity he has to be with other families where he can “compare notes” and bond over their mutual experiences.
Amy Walsh, the director of business development for Jett Foundation, noticed how fitting the community corner name was for her organization. “That’s what we do. That’s what we’re here for. We’re like the Jett Family.”
On the field when the game ends, the players shake hands and high-five each other on a job well done. Some exchange handshakes, while others just take in the feeling that comes with a win. The communities of Jett Foundation and Valerie’s House have clearly won as well. For once, they were able to focus on living life in the present, the greatest escape there is.