Romero helps open youth zone at YMCA

Romero helps open youth zone at YMCA

Romero helps open youth zone at YMCA
TORONTO -- The Central Toronto YMCA not only got a major facelift Saturday morning, it had a special guest in attendance to unveil its grand opening project: Blue Jays starting pitcher Ricky Romero.

In partnership with the Jays Care Foundation, the YMCA, located in downtown Toronto, unveiled a youth zone, which is a designated space with a homework room, lounge and interactive technology to promote regular physical activity.

"Any time that I get to come speak to young kids and do this kind of stuff, it's special to me," Romero said. "It's stuff I take with me forever and something that I will cherish. Being around these kids is something that I definitely don't take for granted. Any time you're able to make a positive influence, it's special."

Along with Romero, members of the Jays Care Foundation as well as Gordon Chong, chair of the YMCA Board of Directors, took part in a ribbon cutting ceremony while they were greeted by local youths who were on hand to see the redeveloped zone -- and Romero, of course.

"It's great for our kids because many of our kids who belong to the YMCA come from disadvantaged families, and to have a partnership with the Jays Foundation is great because many of the players came from disadvantaged backgrounds themselves," Chong said. "These kids see what is possible when they see people like Ricky. They realize that with a little bit of dedication and hard work, there are people that are willing to help them get a leg up. Obviously, as a charity, we need help, and the Blue Jays Foundation has been able to provide that financial help."

The space, which is divided with a playroom in the front and computer room in the back, was made possible through a $60,000 Field of Dreams grant from the Jays Care Foundation. For Danielle Bedasse, executive director of the Jays Care Foundation, the reasons to get behind an initiative like this are endless.

"A need in this city was creating safe and dedicated space for youth," Bedasse said. "We believe in promoting physical activity, education, life-skill development and creating safe capital space, and making those investments in organizations like the YMCA that can host youths and provide a safe place, and that was important to us."

This was the second youth zone the Jays Care Foundation has helped support -- the first one was in Scarborough, Ontario -- and Bedasse said this won't be the last of these types of projects.

"With the YMCA, we have two youth zones and we have 29 dedicated spaces across the city and country," Bedasse said. "We are looking to expand our investment across the country -- you will see beyond the borders of Toronto, us investing in safe space across the rest of Canada."

While the YMCA is best known as a place where youths can stay active and participate in recreational sport, there is also a very strong emphasis on education. Part of what makes it so special is the youths that frequent it are not just encouraged to be involved in athletics, but to take their academics just as seriously.

To ensure this, there are multiple computers aligned in the designated area that YCMA members are welcome to use. This was important to everyone involved Saturday.

"Kids' futures depend on more than sports, so a combination [of promoting athletics and academics] is great," Chong said. "Kids will get to see that, while they may aspire to be an athlete, along the way you have to get an education, so there is an educational component.

"Our catchment area is in an area where a lot of kids don't have the financial ability to do a lot of things that middle- and upper-class kids are able to do. So if we can expose them to the athletic or educational component, then it opens their eyes and broadens their horizons and it makes them understand that everything is possible if you dedicate yourself to it. We're happy because we are able to help people."

Bedasse echoed those sentiments.

"I think that it's really about being available to the whole kid or person and school is very important," Bedasse said. "We have a big focus on our school programs across Canada. We really think that it all works together. If you're happy and doing well in school, then you've got more time to be physically active -- they [education and athletics] go hand in hand."

As Chong mentioned, a number of the youths that use the YMCA facilities have experienced hardships and difficulties in their life, but sometimes all it takes is getting a figure like Romero to brighten their days and be a source of inspiration for them.

It's something the All-Star pitcher is well aware of.

"When you're able to change someone's life in any way shape or form in a positive way, I think that's what you're shooting for," Romero said. "You try to be a role model and do the right things."

Chris Toman is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.