"A lot more players have been getting involved," said Danielle Silverstein, the executive director of the Jays Care Foundation, which was established in 1992.
From local baseball fields to classrooms around the city, the Blue Jays have helped the foundation continue to grow. This past season, Jays Care continued to expand its wide range of programs by taking on more initiatives, creating even more areas for players to get involved.
It's not only the Blue Jays who are pitching in, either.
"We created a partnership with all of the other pro team foundations in Toronto," Silverstein said. "Jays Care and the Blue Jays really spearheaded it, but they came together to sort of pool their funds underneath the Youth Challenge Fund, which is a large initiative in the greater Toronto area and its 13 priority neighborhoods."
The NBA Raptors, NHL Maple Leafs and CFL Argonauts joined the Blue Jays in forming the "Team Up for Youth" partnership in September. The grant that the franchises created together came to roughly $700,000 -- a total that was then matched by the province of Ontario.
As a result, the initiative generated about $1.4 million to fund youth-driven programs around the greater Toronto area. As part of the program, the Blue Jays agreed to tackle six specific projects -- two as part of the Jays Care Foundation's Field of Dreams initiative -- under the banner of the Youth Challenge Fund.
"We're targeting youth-driven initiatives and creating safe-use space," Silverstein said, "and creating interesting projects and programs for children and youth."
The Field of Dreams project started as a way to help restore the playing surfaces, backstops, fencing, irrigation and other elements involved with baseball and softball fields around Toronto. The foundation has since expanded the program to create safer environments for kids in various parks and playgrounds.
One of Jays Care's more prominent programs is the Rookie League, which provides a place to play ball for more than 500 kids, ages 8-14, living within Toronto Community Housing. The eight-week program now includes more than 20 teams and helps the kids learn about healthy lifestyles, drug awareness and baseball.
Since 2002, Blue Jays center fielder Vernon Wells has served as the honorary commissioner of the Rookie League, and he donates part of his salary each year to help fund the program. This past year, the league continued to grow and more of Toronto's players joined Wells in helping out.
First baseman Lyle Overbay attended the league's Opening Day event, and the Rookie League expanded to include divisions named after right fielder Alex Rios, ace pitcher Roy Halladay, second baseman Aaron Hill and Overbay. Wells continues to be one of the driving forces behind the initiative, though.
"He's always there," Silverstein said. "He was there for our wrap-up event, and he's definitely a huge part of the Rookie League. He's very involved with it with his financial commitment to it and just being there with the kids and being very supportive of it."
Besides Wells, Halladay runs a program called "Doc's box." Six times per season, Halladay hosts children from the Hospital for Sick Kids in a luxury suite at the ballpark. Other Jays players offer annual donations to the Jays Care Foundation, and the Lady Jays, the players' wives, have also been involved in community outreach programs.
The Blue Jays take part in numerous community outreach initiatives, including one that was new during the 2008 season. The Jays began the "Wednesday's Wishes" program, which partnered with Make-A-Wish Canada to bring children out to every Wednesday home game at Rogers Centre to watch batting practice and meet the players.
In September, the Jays Care Foundation also launched a new "Home Run Scholars" program. Partnered with Pathways to Education, the initiative includes a $400,000 commitment over the next four years to help promote education to students from the Pathways program, which is aimed at lowering the high school dropout rate.
"Basically, it's a program serving the most at-risk students," Silverstein said, "or the youth most at risk of dropping out of high school, and getting them through and providing opportunities for them to go to a trade school, college or university."
On Dec. 11, the Blue Jays will host roughly 1,000 children at Rogers Centre for their annual HoliJays party. The event brings kids from within Toronto Community Housing and those involved with the Toronto Children's Breakfast Clubs to the stadium for a fun day that includes meeting one or two of the team's players.