HOPE Week Reflections

Last Friday afternoon, a few short hours after attending the Yankees’ final HOPE Week 2012 event at the Bronx Botanical Gardens, I was in the Yankee Stadium press box listening to a reporter go on about the whole program being a calculated publicity stunt. As the only writer to have observed HOPE Week planning sessions from behind the scenes, and the author of a book-in-progress about a previous year’s HOPE Week honoree, I’d seen and heard a lot of things that contradicted his assertions. But he visibly fazed me out when I tried to discuss it, and I thought that unfortunate.

HOPE Week is community outreach on a grand organizational scale. It recognizes individuals who’ve dedicated themselves to helping others or who’ve overcome great obstacles in their lives to set examples through their own optimism and perseverance. Each year the Yankees plan an elaborate series of surprises for their five honorees and their friends and families. All the events involve appearances the organization’s players, coaches and executives, and every active member of the team generally volunteers to participate.

The events are often elaborate. There have been surprise reunions on national television, meetings with the mayor at City Hall, celebrity appearances, a carnival on the Yankee Stadium field after a game, pizza deliveries to a New York tour bus from Derek Jeter, even a Staten Island block party with former Yankees pitcher A.J. Burnett getting dunked by local kids and swimsuit model Kate Upton posing for snapshots with beaming neighborhood guys.

I’ve been writing about HOPE Week since its inception in 2009, having stumbled onto it while I was in the press box gathering material for a regular baseball column. I’d wandered over to where various stat sheets and press releases are stacked for reporters to pick up, and saw a HOPE Week press release about the next night’s event acknowledging Camp Sundown, a summer camp for people with a genetic condition known as Xeroderma Pigmentosum. XP is a disorder that essentially makes the tiny percentage of kids afflicted with it allergic to sunlight. Their skin can’t repair the damage caused by normal exposure to ultraviolet radiation. Most develop malignant carcinomas. Their often brief lives are lead at night or behind blackout shades.

My initial motive for requesting a credential was admittedly selfish. In my seventh Tom Clancy’s Power Plays novel, Zero Hour, I’d decided to make the principle antagonist, Hasul Benazir, a wealthy businessman-terrorist who suffered from the XP mutation. When I wrote the book in 2003 or thereabouts, I’d known almost nothing about the condition beyond its most obvious symptoms. But I liked giving my villains traits that distinguished them from run-of-the-mill America-hating badguys and thought it would let me present Benazir as a richer, more textured character.

The HOPE Week event for Camp Sundown was a chance to see to see how close I’d come to capturing the reality of living with the disorder. The Yankees, moreover, would be surprising the Camp Sundown kids with a carnival on the field after a game with the Oakland Athletics. Stilt walkers, jugglers, rides, refreshments, and players cavorting into the late hours. The whole thing tugged at my interest.

It proved a magical experience. The midnight rides and costumed performers amid the empty grandstands, the joy of the kids and their families, the enthusiasm of the Yankee players. Magical, memorable, and poignant. Jose Molina, who was the Yankees’ backup catcher, would become emotional speaking with me. Pitcher Alfredo Aceves stayed until two or three in the morning playing guitar. Other members of the team played soccer with the kids. By then the handful of television crews and reporters were long gone.

After writing my story, I stayed in occasional touch with the camp’s founder, Caren Mahar, whose youngest daughter Katie had the disease. In the spring of 2010, I drove up to Camp Sundown in Craryville, New York, to hold a writers’ workshop for the campers and their families. It was a big success. That day Caren told me and my wife that Jason Zillo, the Yankees’ public relations chief, had been a supporter of Camp Sundown for a long time. While still an intern with the Yankees organization, he’d watched a segment about the Mahars on a televised news magazine and quietly begun doing things with the Yankees to benefit their cause. Caren recalled Zillo telling her that he wanted to someday be able to do more. Years later when his concept for HOPE Week was embraced by the team’s front office, Zillo at once thought of the Mahars and kept his word.

During HOPE Week 2011 I met the Trush family. Daniel Trush, the week’s first honoree, was twenty-seven years old at the time. When he was 12, an aneurism in his skull had burst, plunging him into a deep coma. Danny remained comatose for about 30 days. His family was told the odds were against his survival, and that if he did live, he likely wouldn’t lead anything close to a meaningful existence – which was another way of saying he would remain in an essentially vegetative state. But Daniel defied expectations. He emerged from the coma and gradually recovered. Although he’d suffered brain damage that left him with multiple disabilities, he would not only prevail but inspire others to move past adversity with his spirited optimism and wry, infectious humor. Music had been important to him before his traumatic brain injury, and was crucial to his healing, and his family would eventually start a foundation that helped heal others through musical interaction. Danny became its driving force.

The Trushes touched and impressed me. Their family bond was special. Nothing had ever prepared them for what happened to Danny, yet they never gave up on him or lost faith that he would continue to get better, and had innately known how to best support him through his evolving challenges.

I wrote a column about Daniel for YESNetwork.com, and subsequently met with him and his father Ken to discuss a book that would tell their family’s story at greater length. We found we shared the same vision for the project and moved ahead. Part of my lengthy book proposal involved getting better acquainted with the work the Trushes did through their nonprofit, Daniel’s Music Foundation. In the autumn of 2011, they invited me to a small cocktail party-fundraiser in Manhattan. I knew Jason Zillo would be there. DMF had grown tremendously owing to the exposure it had gotten from HOPE Week, and the Trushes had wanted to thank him with an honorific.

It came as no surprise that the entire Yankees PR department was in attendance. But I hadn’t expected that Jennifer Steinbrenner Swindal, co-owner of the team, would be there too. She mingled a little with the other guests and then sat at a corner table watching members of the foundation perform. There were no cameras other than those used to capture the performance for personal remembrances. Steinbrenner Swindal stayed well out of the spotlight.

Shortly before Christmas, I attended DMF’s annual holiday show at a school auditorium. Again the Yankees PR department came, some with their families, to watch the performance. In May 2012, with a deal finally secured for the book, I observed rehearsals for DMF’s spring concert in their rented studio space. One night, Jason Latimer, a member of the Yankees PR department dropped by pushing his two-year-old in a stroller. He explained that he’d wanted to catch some of the rehearsals because would be unable to make the show, which would fall the same Sunday afternoon as a Yankees game. He stayed for about an hour.

A few weeks after their foundation’s spring concert, I contacted Jason Zillo to ask if could sit in on Yankees PR’s HOPE Week selection and planning discussions. Part of my narrative would involve the Trushes’ being chosen as honorees and I wanted a firsthand glimpse of the process. It was an unusual request, as these are closed-door meetings in Zillo’s office, but figured it would be worth a shot. Happily Zillo agreed. Although the picks had already been made, he told me I could observe the planning sessions. I later interested YESNetwork.com in a feature offering a behind-the-scenes look at HOPE Week and cleared it with Zillo. He placed no restrictions on what I could write about for YES, other than requesting that I keep a brief conversation about PR’s negotiations with a public figure off the record.

The group’s exchanges frequently concerned logistics and coordination. Some involved players: Which ones had signed up for particular events? Who was still undecided? There were also discussions involving celebrities, corporate sponsors and media outlets. But the subject always came back around to the HOPE Week honorees. Their needs remained at the core of the agenda. Could they help one man with his college tuition? With storage space for food? Or would a long-term supply of gas for his truck be more useful than the space? Is it better to get Costco or Hess into this? Beyond plotting HOPE Week’s highly public itineraries, the people in the room were determined to do what would most benefit the recipients when the cameras left and they returned to their everyday routines.

HOPE Week 2012 ran from June 25-29, coinciding with the Yankees’ final homestand before the All-Star break. I chose to attend three events, beginning with the second day. The Yanks had tagged it An Angel in Queens and it acknowledged a man named Jorge Munoz, who had dedicated himself to feeding the hungry. Munoz had very little in the way of savings or material possessions. He lived in a modest rental apartment with his mother, sister and young nephew and prepared over a hundred free meals a day in its tiny kitchen.

As Yankee players arrived to surprise Munoz with food supplies, the apartment was quickly packed with reporters and cameramen. I jostled my way inside and soon found myself in a small, cramped room facing one of two kitchen entrances. Packed into that tight space beside me was Jennifer Steinbrenner Swindal. She stood away from the cameras, peering into the kitchen where the players were helping to cook that day’s meal of rice, beans and chopped ham.

After a brief exchange with her, I asked for an interview and she agreed on the spot. She shared her feelings about the initiative overall, and emotionally recalled a moment the day before that had brought her to tears.

Back outside in the Munoz’s concrete driveway later, I watched Jennifer speak to neighbors drawn to the scene by the media caravans. She cooed over their children and told a couple of kids about Munoz’s selflessness, standing well away from the television cameras. The reporters assigned to the story were busy interviewing players and more or less ignored her. The kids, and many of their parents, had no idea who she was.

That night at Yankee Stadium, Munoz would throw the game’s ceremonial first pitch and then hasten back to Queens to distribute his meals. Before tossing the ball from the mound, he’d attended a dinner in the press conference room outside the Yankees clubhouse. Previous years’ HOPE Week honorees had arrived from around the country, their transportation aided by the Yankees. The dinner was unpublicized, closed to reporters, but I was there as the Trushes’ guest. Brian Cashman spoke a few words of greeting to the alumni. Zillo and several members of his team spent time catching up with them. Jennifer Steinbrenner circulated around the room, chatting informally with everyone. The Trushes were moved when a 2010 HOPE Week honoree spoke of wanting to do volunteer work with their foundation. More connections were forming.

My next event was Thursday at a nursing home in the Bronx. The honorees were members of a nonprofit group called Glamourgals, high school and college-age volunteers who give manicures and makeovers to the elderly at senior care facilities. The cafeteria was full of residents sitting at long tables when the Yankee contingent showed up. Some knew the players, some didn’t. They were mostly looking forward to manicures and lunch.

Scenes from that day would etch themselves in my mind. I recall a woman in a wheelchair happily exclaiming, “A smile doesn’t cost a penny!” when Nick Swisher sat at her table to work on another lady’s nails. She had a Yiddish accent and would tell me she was a Holocaust survivor, showing me the number tattooed on her arm. She’d lost her entire family in the death camps but had somehow survived, married, had children. Now she was getting a kick out of Swisher. He was hamming it up, charming the octogenarian ladies at the table, and it had put her in a cheerful mood. I asked her how she kept smiling.

“The Nazis wiped out my whole family. I told myself I wouldn’t go down, that someone would live to remember them,” she said. “Sometimes, I cry when I think of them. I’m human. But I try to remember the good times. My smile means the people who killed them didn’t win.”

Elsewhere in the room, David Robertson had been talking to a man who’d had a severe stroke. He was in a wheelchair and largely unable to move or speak. His friend explained that he’d been a Yankees fan since 1952 and still watched all the games.

“Hopefully we’ll win this year, be like 2009 all over again,” Robertson told him.

The man’s face lit up. Lips that could no longer form words shaped a broad grin.

Minutes later, I watched one of the Glamourgals volunteers slowly overcome the guarded suspiciousness of a woman suffering from dementia. Her gentle patience struck me. The woman, looked ancient, and was holding something close against her body. I glimpsed what appeared to be artificial hair between her tightly folded arms and wondered if it was a wig or fall.

The volunteer was a beautiful, raven-haired teenager of South Asian descent. She spoke softly to the woman. Kindly. The gulf in age between them was six or seven decades. They were of different ethnicities and cultural backgrounds, and I could only imagine the variance in their experiences. The volunteer had noticed the object clasped in her arms.

“Is that a doll?” she asked.

The woman gave her a sharp, wary glance. Then, ever so gradually, she loosened her grip, the doll emerging into sight. “She’s my baby,” she said.

“She’s pretty,” the teenager said. “Can I hold her?”

The woman raised the doll off her lap. Hesitated. Pulled it close again.

The girl just smiled at her. Finally the woman relaxed her grip a second time, holding the doll out for her to take.

The volunteer told me afterward that it had been her second time out at the home with the Glamourgals. She explained that her grandparents lived far away, and that she rarely saw them, and that interacting with seniors helped compensate for their absence.

“It’s really being touched that means the most to them, the physical contact, so I like giving manicures,” the teenager said. “It takes longer, and you hold their hands.”

At Yankee Stadium that afternoon, Glamourgals organizers and volunteers would watch the Yankees’ batting practice outside their dugout. They cheered whenever a player raked a BP pitch, oohed and aahed as Derek Jeter appeared to sign baseballs.

“It feels good to be recognized,” one of them told me, a college freshman speaking for a group of three or four young women I’d interviewed. “We don’t do it for that reason, but it validates us.”

The following morning, Friday, I was back in the Bronx for the last HOPE Week event, held at the botanical gardens. The recipient of honors was an organization called CAP, or the Children’s Alopecia Project. Alopecia is a disorder of the autoimmune system that leads to childhood baldness, and kids who suffer from it suffer from self-esteem issues and are often bullied and ostracized by their peers. The lush green picnic setting, large player turnout, and planned activities for the kids – a scavenger hunt, head painting, other games – probably made this occasion the most fun.

For me it became the most moving. I was in the clubhouse where pizza was about to be served when I noticed one of the CAP kids, a teenage girl, sitting on a bench with a 30-something guy I assumed was a member of her family. She was completely bald, cute as a button, and had a mature intelligence in her eyes that belied her age. And she looked quietly happy.

I went over, crouched in front of her, and asked if she’d mind telling me how she felt about the day. She told me she was loving it. The whole thing had been a surprise. The guy sitting with her was her uncle, and he’d driven her and her mom all the way to New York from rural Pennsylvania. The population of her hometown, her uncle chimed in, was roughly equivalent to the number of passengers crammed aboard a Manhattan subway car. She had known there would be a CAP event but knew nothing about its scale or the Yankees’ involvement.

I asked the girl about living with alopecia. She said that if she had to suffer from a rare disorder, it was far from the worst. It wasn’t painful, life threatening, or physically disabling. It just made you lose your hair. Social ostracism wasn’t a problem for her, she said. Kids in her town didn’t make a big deal out of it.

Her uncle added that it had meant a lot for her to meet other kids with the condition, kids who could relate to the unique set of feelings that came with losing your hair at an age when boys and girls are very appearance-conscious.

As he spoke about that, her eyes moistened. On impulse, I patted the back of her hand, gave her a smile. I didn’t know what else to do.

A tear slid down her cheek. Another. I put my hand on hers again.

“We all have things in our lives that are hard to talk about,” I told her. “I have things in mine. And when I’m with someone else who’s had those experiences, it’s like there’s a bridge between us, and we don’t have to talk about them. We can just relax, and maybe let go for a while.”

The girl was crying outright now, softly, tears streaming down her cheeks. I felt awkward and guilty. I wondered if I’d said the right words. They were the ones that came to me. But I didn’t know. I was thinking that maybe I shouldn’t have said anything at all.

The girl’s mother appeared, saw her shiny wet cheeks, asked if anything was wrong. She shook her head no, but said she was going to the restroom. The two of them went off together.

I apologized to the uncle. He said it wasn’t necessary. “Trust me,” he said. “Those were tears of joy.”

I answered with some clumsy, defensive half-joke about it not looking a whole lot like joy when his niece started weeping. But he brushed a hand through the air. “It’s good for her to see that people from a big city like New York can embrace her,” he said. “It makes life less scary.”

I knew he was sincere. But I still felt lousy. On a day when she was supposed to be having a good time, I’d made the kid cry.

It must have been half an hour later when her mother came up to me. “Can I talk to you a minute?” she said.

Of course, I told her, and felt a coil of tension in my chest, thinking I was about to hear it, bracing for her rebuke.

“I don’t know what you said to my daughter,” she said, “But whatever it was, I want to thank you. It meant a lot to her.”

I exhaled from my toes up. My relief was tidal. At that instant, I probably couldn’t have recalled my words to the girl for a million dollars. I was just glad I hadn’t hurt her and blemished her memories of the day.

I thought of that girl in the Stadium’s press box later on, faced with the reporter’s vocal denunciation of HOPE Week. For me, it is the perfect fusing of corporate philanthropy and public relations, and what makes it so perfect is that it is honest and heartfelt. Everyone involved benefits. The superstars and bright lights, as one alumnus told me, are part of what make it special for the honorees. They can forever look back at the day as a shining moment of recognition and acceptance.

I didn’t have any issue with the reporter’s skepticism. It’s vital that people question what is presented to them. But he wasn’t asking anything. It was a one-sided tirade. He hadn’t known of the book I was working on when he launched into it, or been aware of my inside look at the planning sessions. When I told him, he just shrugged his dismissal. When I asked the basis of his opinion about HOPE Week, he offered nothing but a critical and personal assessment of an individual involved with it.

I’m not writing this to give vent to my thoughts on one person’s obduracy (I happen to like the reporter) or really even address a more general cynicism toward HOPE Week that arose from certain fan quarters this year. I just want to present a set of informed observations for those who might be interested. Skepticism should be a probative tool. A pick for extracting truth. When it instead becomes an impenetrable wall, then there’s barely any spitting distance to separate it from ignorance.

Nobody should tell you what’s straight or what’s crooked. But if we aren’t willing to look, weigh and measure before deciding it diminishes us as a society, and the main thing I’ve learned from four years of writing about HOPE Week is that open eyes – and, yes, hearts – can take us all to a better place together.