"Three years ago, we went shopping for some underprivileged kids in Arlington, Texas, and the neglect that we saw physically in these kids, in what they were wearing, it seemed they hadn't bathed in days and their clothes hadn't been washed in weeks. That stuck with us," Wells said. "It hit us hard.
"That's when we finally decided to go out and start this foundation, and have some control over where our money goes and who it goes to."
Specifically, it hit them that if children are in such dire situations, life must be equally rough for the adults in charge of their care. Wells' Perfect 10 Foundation just closed on the purchase of the Vernon Wells Home for Single Mothers in Denton, Texas. The home will have room for four or five single or expectant mothers and their families, and the foundation will provide support and counseling to help the mothers with education and empowerment to help both themselves and their children.
For the new charitable endeavor, as well as Wells' longtime work with the Jays Care Foundation, the Denver Rotary Club Foundation presented Wells with the 2010 Branch Rickey Award at a special dinner Saturday night at the Denver Marriott City Center Hotel.
"We try to figure out what their passion is," Wells said of the program for single mothers. "Once we figure that out, we can get them to the education level they need. We're building the relationships with pastors and with the educators to get these women where they need to be, so they can do more."
Proceeds from the annual banquet and silent auction will benefit Denver Rotary Club Foundation programs, including Denver Kids Inc., a preventive counseling and mentoring program for at-risk students in Denver Public Schools.
Wells, who graduated from Bowie High School in Arlington, Texas, and has kept his hometown in his heart, was chosen by a national selection committee of 300 sports media members, past award winners, baseball executives and Rotary district governors. Each of the 30 Major League teams submitted a nominee for the award. By winning the award, Wells became the 19th member of the Denver Rotary Club's Baseball Humanitarian Hall of Fame.
Wells said the Blue Jays were instrumental in sparking his interest in community service. The club emphasizes the importance of becoming involved and provides opportunities for young players as soon as they reach the Majors, and encourages players to do more. Wells put his money where his heart was by donating $1 million to the Jays Care Foundation when he signed a seven-year, $126 million contract with the team in 2007.
Wells, who for years participated in baseball camps for Toronto-area children and has served as honorary commissioner of the Jays Care Foundation Rookie League for the past 10 seasons, said contributing on a large scale takes more than just feeling good about giving money or demonstrating baseball skills.
"There have been good days," Wells said. "There have been sad days with, unfortunately, some of the things you see on a day-to-day basis. Unfortunately, a lot of these kids don't know any better. They see what they're stuck in, and that's why that cycle continues to go."
Wells said when he and Charlene decided to reach out to not only the children but the mothers, they entered an educational process. They've leaned on the ministers, counselors and educators for knowledge.
"We just care, and we've learned through the process," Wells said. "The foundation has only been open for two years, but once you throw yourself in the fire, that learning process goes pretty quickly. We've surrounded ourselves with good people.
"You start to realize what this life is all about. It's great to be able to go to a baseball field and continue to play a game as a grown man. But while you're at the field, you get to see the smile on kids' faces. It humbles you. More than that, you're in a position to help change lives."
Wells said he embraces being involved in charitable activities in Arlington and Toronto, and believes some of the children he has touched through the Jays Care Foundation Rookie League -- who might otherwise not have had the chance to play baseball because of a lack of playing space in inner cities -- are reaching higher levels of baseball.
"Kids who have never picked up a bat, never picked up a baseball, you put a bat in their hands and it seems like they've been playing for years," Wells said.
The award Wells received is named for the late Branch Rickey, who is credited with breaking baseball's color barrier in 1945 by signing Jackie Robinson for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Rickey is also credited with breaking the color barrier with Hispanic players by signing Roberto Clemente.
Rickey, who is credited with developing baseball's farm system and spearheading westward expansion of the Majors, developed the "Knot Hole Gang" to allow children to attend Major League games.
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less