Yankees Kick-Off HOPE Week with a Look Back
The New York Yankees held their first HOPE Week five years ago, but the idea for the HOPE initiative, which stands for Helping Others Preserve and Excel, came almost two decades ago.
Jayson Zillo, Yankees Executive Director of Media and Communications, is the brains behind Hope Week, and he remembers what inspired the program. Zillo was an intern for the Yankees, and while watching television one night, he saw a story about Camp Sundown. The organization helps children who suffer a disease that makes them allergic to sunlight,and Camp Sundown hosts events at night for kids to play and hangout when the sun's down.
Zillo was moved by what he saw.
"I was sitting there and I watched this story and it was heartbreaking,” Zillo said, “I said to myself, ‘I want to do something.’"
At that point in his career, Zillo said he wasn't in the position where he could do much for the group.
He decided to attend a Camp Sundown event at Central Park to meet Caren Mahar, Executive Director of Camp Sundown. He vowed to keep in touch and help out the organization the best he could.
Mahar was surprised by this man who continued to keep contact with the organization.
"Year after year we'd hear from him,” she said. “[The Yankees] want to help out, we want to give you something for the auction, and I'm like ‘Yeah, yeah whatever you crazy guy.’
But he did [keep in touch], and he kept coming through, which is what the Yankees have done for us."
About nineteen years after Zillo met Mahar in Central Park, the Yankees held one of the first Hope Week events for Camp Sundown. They had a carnival at Yankee Stadium in the middle of the night for kids and teens with an allergy to light.
Then, five years after that, the Yankees brought members of Camp Sundown and the other twenty-four previous Hope Week recipients to Manhattan for a reunion at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.
The gathering featured former Yankees legends Mariano Rivera and David Cone. It also brought together heroes off the baseball diamond, including Mohamed Kamara.
He was born in Sierra Leone during a tough time for the African country. The nation had a bloody Civil War from 1991-2003, and Kamara was born in the middle of it.
“I never really had a childhood growing up,” Kamara said. “My family was sleeping in the woods, sleeping in the forest, and we sometimes didn't know how we were going to get food for a couple of weeks."
Kamara eventually came to the United States as a war refugee. While in high school, the Yankees decided to surprise him as part of the 2010 Hope Week.
General Manager Brian Cashman and Yankees’ stars including Reggie Jackson and Derek Jeter gave Kamara an unforgettable tour of New York City. They took him to the New York Stock Exchange, City Hall, and the United Nations headquarters.
When the day ended, the Yankees told Kamara he was part of their family, and they meant it, keeping in touch with Kamara after he left for college.
"My freshman year of college, I was getting ready for my 7:10 class, and my phone started ringing,” Kamara said. “I said I don't know who this is, and he said ‘it's Derek Jeter.’”
The Yankees captain wished Kamara good luck on his first year in college and offered some words for motivation.
The reunion in Manhattan, which kicked off Hope Week 2014, offered many inspiring stories similar to Kamara and Camp Sundown.
The Yankees have touched numerous lives through Hope Week, and the powerful initiative extends beyond the Major League level. All six U-S based Yankees affiliates, including the Staten Island Yankees, have had their own Hope Week for three consecutive years.
General Manager Brian Cashman plays a very important role for the Yankees organization, and with Spring Training, 162 regular season games, the playoffs, and off-season deals, he's a busy guy.
But he said Hope Week gives him a chance to focus on non-baseball activities.
"We work and live in a city that's the fastest place going, and we're all busting our butt and doing everything we can on a daily basis,” Cashman said. “You get caught up in all of those things, and you don't realize what's going on in your backyard."
Cashman gets a chance to take time out of his hectic schedule to spend time with amazing individuals thanks to Hope Week. Since Jayson Zillo founded the initiative, Cashman has volunteered at a special lemonade stand for charity, cooked for the homeless, and stood up against bullies.
"[Hope Week] has shined a light on all of these amazing things happening in our backyard."
The fifth anniversary of Hope Week has given the Yankees and their extended family a chance to reconnect. With Hope Week thriving, five years from now the Yankees will probably have another reunion with an even larger family.