It was a November day in Boston, and Lisa Vasiloff was home with the flu. When the phone rang, she did not bother getting up.
"I got a call from a 212 area code," she remembered. "I didn't answer it."
A New York number calling Boston ... how important could it be?
The caller was New York Yankees communications and media relations director Jason Zillo. He left a voicemail congratulating Vasiloff on her 501c3 organization, Birthday Wishes, being chosen as an organization for Yankees HOPE (Helping Others Persevere & Excel) Week 2013.
"I called him back right away," said Vasiloff, the executive director and co-founder of Birthday Wishes. "We've been working with them since to get everything together for the day."
The Yankees and Vasiloff's efforts culminated in a birthday party at Yankee Stadium on Thursday for about two dozen homeless children. Birthday Wishes worked with Community Housing Innovations, Inc, a non-profit organization devoted to providing housing and human services to low- and moderate-income families, to organize the event. Six children celebrated birthdays close to the day's festivities.
The party started on the field, where the children got a chance to walk around the warning track. It was difficult for the kids to keep a low profile, as reporters, including NBC Today's Matt Lauer, took the walk with the children.
"It's different because on TV, it's smaller and you can't really see everything," Hydeia Irving said from the right field fence. Irving will turn 9 on July 27 and enjoyed the return of her favorite player, Derek Jeter, to the Yankees' lineup since being injured in the playoffs.
Many children posed in front of the famed blue wall, as others studied the tarp, which protected the field from a light drizzle. Vasiloff hesitated to take photos.
"If anyone at home sees me with this background, I'm going to get in trouble!" the Bostonian said.
Birthday Wishes started as a volunteer organization in November 2002 by Vasiloff, Karen Yahara and Carol Zwanger, three friends who wanted to help homeless children build self-esteem. As volunteers at homeless shelters and parents who attended birthday parties, this idea came naturally.
The first batch of parties worked in conjunction with Second Step shelter in Newton, Mass. In only a few months, Birthday Wishes expanded its influence to nine shelters. Over a decade later, more than 175 shelters and transitional living facilities work with Birthday Wishes to help homeless children feel more like "regular kids." Birthday Wishes has seven offices (or as Vasiloff says, "Rooms with toys in them.") in Massachusetts, one in Rhode Island and one in Long Island.
"For the parents, it's about knowing an organization like the Yankees cares about them," Lauer said. "I think it's eye-opening. It's a great combination of sports and social consciousness."
After leaving the field, the children hiked up to a Yankee Stadium suite for a surprise party. Yankees players Mariano Rivera, CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, Hiroki Kuroda, Phil Hughes, David Phelps, Chris Stewart and bullpen coach Mike Harkey awaited the kids by the door.
When asked by a reporter to answer a question moments before the children arrived, Rivera politely refused.
"I don't want to be talking to you when they come in!" he said.
Rivera led the pinstripes as the Yankees high-fived and shook hands with the homeless children. Candy, fried food, a magician, a hat and shirt graffiti station and souvenirs filled the room. The party was on.
"It's important for us. We're giving back to the community and the people in need," Rivera said. "If we can put a smile on their face for a moment, we're doing a good job. We can all do the little things. For the kids, that's what this is all about."
Near Rivera, catcher Chris Stewart and pitcher David Phelps began a conversation about home runs with a few children. The duo was quick with a few jests.
"This guy hits a lot of home runs," Stewart said of the starting pitcher.
"So does he," Phelps joked about Stewart, who has just seven dingers in 208 career games. Phelps received a chorus of laughter from his youthful audience.
HOPE Week is in its fifth season of existence. Each year, the Yankees use a five-day stretch of home games to give back to five different organizations. According to the Yankees, "HOPE Week is rooted in the fundamental belief that acts of goodwill provide hope and encouragement to more than just the recipient of the gesture."
For the second straight year, all six U.S.-based affiliates of the Yankees also hosted their own HOPE Weeks. At all levels, players, coaches, front office staff and Yankees general manager Brian Cashman are required to participate in the community service week.
Alexander H. Roberts, executive director of Community Housing Innovations, Inc., hopes the inclusion of his organization in HOPE Week can help publicize a large issue commonly ignored.
"It's an event to point out the fact that we have too many homeless people in the suburbs," Roberts says. "Most people think it's just a problem in the inner city. This is in the suburbs and there are literally thousands of homeless families. It's even more difficult in the suburbs because you have zoning and planning boards who have a bias against multi-family housing. They all want single-family houses. Most young people and even older people–they can't afford it–so as a result, you have a situation where 25 percent of families in rental housing are paying more than half of their income on rent, which means they have to go without food sometimes, medicine. It's really a bad situation."
The children brought to Yankee Stadium by Birthday Wishes and Community Housing Innovations, Inc. all came from Long Island. Roberts encourages suburbanites to sympathize with low-income families. He thinks people should look at their local politics and question exclusionary zoning laws. Individuals who provide services and jobs to communities are kept on the streets because of a lack of affordable housing due to laws.
Roberts recalled a story from a child at a Long Island shelter: "Yesterday, a 12-year old was telling me he's been at the shelter four months and every day, his mother goes on Craigslist and looks at the PennySaver and looks at the paper and cannot find a place they can live that they can afford."
On Thursday, the heroes came in the form of the Yankees. Although the children did not have a "home" to return to after the game, the Yankees provided the children with some gratification.
"The Yankees have been so welcoming and the players so warm that it tells them more than anything else that they mean something," Roberts said.
While teaming with Birthday Wishes has brought a new dimension to Roberts' plight, his next workmate may wear pinstripes. Roberts connected with Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia, an individual who came from the inner city and still has family in low-income housing.
"[CC] said you know what, I would be happy to support, I would be happy to talk to zoning and planning boards and tell them that this housing is needed for people and that everyone needs to a place to live," Roberts said. "That's the kind of thing that's making people aware that this is a major issue."
Rafia Irving turned ten years old on June 3, and he enjoyed a satisfying late birthday party in the Bronx. He said it was a good experience meeting all the players and his favorite Yankees are "Derek Jeter, Babe Ruth and T-Bone."
T-Bone was the name Rafia, friend Naquan Oliver and a few other children began calling Mark Teixeira, who said the nickname could stick.
Teixeira, despite being out for the season after having wrist surgery in June, still showed up in the suite for the event.
"HOPE Week's great. We love it," the first baseman said. "We wouldn't miss it for anything. Even in the cast and a sling, we just love giving back to a community that does so much for us. It just makes everyone a little bit more excited about coming to work everyday because we know have a chance to not only win a baseball game, but impact the community."
As players move along in their Yankee careers, many have the chance to experience multiple HOPE Weeks. Stewart, now in his second full season with the team, recognizes the impact the Yankees can have on the community.
"It's nice because our worst day is their best day of their lives," Stewart said. "For us to go out of our way, it's really nothing. It's an honor for us to be here and help these kids get through the tough time their having let them know life does get better. Maybe one day isn't going to make a difference in their lives, but it'll make a different today."
During HOPE Week 2012, Stewart also spent time with children, as he made a trip to the MLB Fan Cave in Manhattan with blind T-ball player Andy Fass and individuals from the National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation. Stewart recognizes the devotion of the groups involved in HOPE Week.
"The organizations don't do it for the recognition," he said "They do it for the love of what they do. They do it for the sole purpose of boosting the community."
Hiroki Kuroda, another second-year Yankee, is now accustomed to how much HOPE Week means to the Yankees. Despite being unable to verbally interact with the children, the Japanese pitcher proves community service can vault any language barrier.
"This is a really important week for the organization and I feel like the energy's there," he said through a translator. "Just to see these kids smile, that makes us happy to be here."
Phil Hughes, a HOPE Week veteran, who has been with the team since 2007, believes it has become a ritual in the Yankees organization.
"It's something we look forward to and love every year," he said. "It's something special and it's great to see the look on the faces of less fortunate kids."
In fall 2002, Lisa Vasiloff threw a party for homeless children in Massachusetts. Almost 11 years later, her organization, Birthday Wishes, had a baseball team honoring it (although not the local team at Fenway Park).
"I can't believe it," she said. "They will never forget this day. I will never forget this day. It's going to make a difference in a good way."
Some of the Yankees may not forget it either. First pitch interrupted their celebration.
"It's unfortunate we have a game later in the day," Stewart said. "We can't hang out with them all day and have fun."
About an hour before game time, the Yankees left the party to get ready for work on the field level (although Teixeira stuck around until about a half hour before game time and sat in the suite seats with the children). The six kids with birthdays near July 11 accepted a $10,000 check for Birthday Wishes from manager Joe Girardi behind home plate. They also each threw out a ceremonial first pitch. The good feeling oozed into the Yankees dugout, as the Bombers won 8-4.
So, what next for Vasiloff and Birthday Wishes?
"This happened, and this is incredible, and it will help us in terms of visibility, but we will do every single month what we do every single month in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Long Island," she said. "We'll keep having volunteers. We keep our model very simple."
The concept is simple: Throw birthday parties for underprivileged children whose parents cannot afford such an affair. The execution is much more complex, as funding is needed for the festivities. The Yankees' recognition of Birthday Wishes can be a catalyst for the growing organization.
Birthday Wishes gives individuals the opportunity to donate based on the particular features of the party such as cake, candles and piñatas. Click here to donate. Donate to Community Housing Innovations, Inc. by clicking here.
-- Follow Jeffrey Eisenband on Twitter @JeffEisenband.
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