From the Pages of Vine Line: Cubs in the Community

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Before things changed—before the day she sat at a table, signed on the dotted line and received a Cubs jersey with her name emblazoned on the back—Virginia Garcia-Rico was feeling lost.

The real world was coming at her fast, but the Lake View High School junior had no idea how to keep up, even though her classmates seemed to be racing ahead with ease. Her parents wanted to help, but they didn’t know much about applying to college.

Then, thanks to an impressive résumé and solid performances in a challenging round of interviews, Garcia-Rico caught a big break. She earned a spot in the first-ever lineup for a new Cubs Charities program called Cubs Scholars. Along with four other talented teens from Chicago-area inner-city high schools, she’s receiving a $20,000 scholarship, personalized college prep help from a mentor and a guarantee of guidance through all four years of college.

And Garcia-Rico is getting something else too. As a Cubs Scholar, she’s privy to a firsthand look at how the team leaves a footprint in Illinois that’s much bigger than pitches, hits and outs. Not long ago, the 17-year-old was there as the Cubs held an event to feed the homeless and young runaways.

“I thought that was amazing,” she said. “The Cubs do all these amazing things—and now I’m a part of it.”

Since 1991, the Cubs and Cubs Charities have donated more than $19 million to groups across the Chicago area. And since 2009, when the Ricketts family took control of the organization, giving back has become one of the team’s three cornerstone priorities, right up there with winning a World Series and protecting Wrigley Field for future generations.

The Cubs—from staff members to volunteers to the players themselves—regularly show up at schools, hospitals and community centers; they rebuild ballparks, playgrounds and classrooms; and they work hard to make sure kids have access to education, fitness and fun. These days, it’s hard to find a Chicago neighborhood that hasn’t been touched in some way by the ballclub.

And the team’s charitable efforts extend beyond Chicago’s borders. After tornadoes toppled buildings in several Illinois towns in November, the Cubs were quick to react. Within days, representatives from the organization had partnered with the community to fill a semitrailer full of supplies, which they hand delivered to Peoria, Ill., along with a sizable check for the Red Cross.

“I think the team takes its responsibility of being a Chicago team seriously enough to consider the boundaries of our giving to be not just in Chicago but across the state,” said Connie Falcone, vice president of development for Cubs Charities. “We’re blessed to be a team with a national following, and it’s important that we give back.”

Many of the team’s charitable relationships have stood the test of time. For about 14 years, the Cubs have given thousands of teens with the Union League Boys & Girls Clubs a chance to step up to the plate. Several reports have shown that fewer inner-city kids are choosing to play baseball—opting instead for football, soccer and basketball—but the Cubs are working to change that.

The RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) Program supports 16 teams around the city, each with about 15 to 20 players on its roster. These kids get an opportunity to play a sport that can often be too expensive for low-income families. Over the years, the program’s impact has been “huge,” said RBI program commissioner Emilia Nichols.

Several players have used their time on RBI teams as a springboard to college. Last year, 11 athletes landed college baseball scholarships because of their performance in the league.

“The coaches are really engaged in getting [the players] seen, making sure they have opportunities, bringing something that is sometimes so unattainable,” Nichols said. “For a lot of them, it’s so special knowing, ‘It’s the Cubs that are sponsoring me.’”

Other groups have joined forces with the Cubs more recently, and getting the team’s stamp of approval creates a ripple effect of giving. In the East Garfield Park neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side, the nonprofit organization Breakthrough Urban Ministries works to keep neighborhood kids on track with sports and after-school tutoring. Bill Curry, the Breakthrough Youth Network’s chief program officer, said it’s a particularly challenging effort in a neighborhood that’s struggled with poverty and violence for decades.

“We try to create a new normal experience for kids in our neighborhood,” he said. “Right now, the normal experience is that you’re more likely to go to jail than go to college—more likely to have a child as a teenager.”

Three years ago, the Cubs offered up some help, donating $30,000 to expand Breakthrough’s efforts. Since then, the ballclub has pitched in the same amount each year, which has allowed the nonprofit organization to boost its tutoring program participation from 75 to 90 students.

All the while, Breakthrough has been busy trying to raise money for a new, $13 million facility. Back when the Cubs began contributing to the group, it was still searching for about $3.5 million. After partnering with the Cubs, that number started shrinking fast.

“It was really interesting,” Curry said. “As we showed who our funding partners were, and when the Cubs came on board and people saw their logo, for some reason people thought, ‘Breakthrough must be legit.’”

The funding came through, and the new facility is expected to be open by early 2015.

Across town, a new organization called the Illinois Mentoring Partnership can tell a similar tale. The group provides guidance to about 150 mentoring entities across the state. In its first year of operation, the partnership got a deal from the Cubs it couldn’t pass up: more than $70,000 worth of free game tickets to hand out to its mentors and their young mentees.
Season ticket holders donated the tickets back to Cubs Charities, who, in turn, gave them to the Illinois Mentoring Partnership. The seats ultimately went to more than 2,000 children and volunteers, including many who had never seen anything quite like Wrigley Field.

“Most of our kids had never been to any kind of professional sporting event before,” said Sheila Merry, the organization’s executive director. “A lot of them had never been outside of their neighborhoods before, so it really was an incredible opportunity for them.”

Plus, having the Cubs tickets made it easier to get connected with other mentoring efforts across the state. Since then, about 90 groups have taken advantage of the partnership’s training programs.

But it’s not just the Cubs front office doing the heavy lifting. Cubs players have been making regular visits to the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago (formerly Children’s Memorial Hospital) for years.

They often stop in at a classroom on the 12th floor that’s named for the team (the Cubs donated $2 million to make it a part of the brand new facility). There, young patients who are well enough to keep up with their schoolwork get help from tutors and participate in games, classroom science experiments and other kid-friendly activities.

There’s a mural on the wall that depicts Wrigley Field—if Wrigley were some kind of magical classroom where you could also play baseball. The scoreboard on the mural features math equations teachers can incorporate into lessons, and a map used for geography is dotted with cutouts of players’ faces. Every time a Cub comes to visit, he picks out his favorite location and marks it on the map.

During the season, players are around every month, said Elizabeth Wolcott, the hospital’s corporate giving officer. Anthony Rizzo, himself a cancer survivor, is the most frequent visitor.

“The Cubs have always been really fantastic partners with the hospital,” Wolcott said.

For players like Darwin Barney, this kind of hands-on help is more than just good PR. The Cubs infielder said he enjoys going out on the Cubs Caravan every January to meet people at schools, hospitals and YMCAs.

“It’s a way to connect with the fans and make a difference in their lives,” he said. “And not just in wins and losses.”

Last summer, Cubs Charities incorporated a new program called the Cubs on the Move Fitness Trolley, which visited summer camps across Chicago. The Trolley is an initiative designed to curb childhood obesity by teaching kids about all aspects of fitness, including healthy eating. The goal is to encourage kids to “play every day” with 60 minutes of vigorous activity.

Becca Martinson, a program coordinator with Urban Initiatives, a group that partners on the Fitness Trolley, said her group has been working with local schools for about 10 years to keep kids occupied during the summer break. But last year, organizers decided to step up their efforts to get young participants interested in fitness.

At four schools spread from Chicago’s far West Side to the far South Side, when the trolley pulled up, it was time to get moving. The Cubs brought professional fitness trainers from Chicago Athletic Clubs to lead warm-up exercises and players to oversee baseball-related games and activities.

“We’d do different games with passing the ball,” Martinson said. “We’d work on sportsmanship and teamwork.”

Throughout the summer, the kids learned about good nutrition and kept detailed fitness logs. If they filled out the logs properly, the Cubs would hand out prizes, ranging from water bottles to T-shirts to a trip to the Friendly Confines for a game.

Martinson said the activities were so popular that program leaders started noticing larger-than-expected crowds. It wasn’t just the camp kids showing up to work out; it was their siblings and parents as well.

“I think what was so special about it was having this huge Chicago institution coming to these schools and giving individual attention to students,” she said. “It made them feel valued and special, because they are.”

Martinson said the Cubs even managed to win over some tough audiences at schools on the South Side. She recalled one boy named Justin, who announced at the beginning of camp that he was strictly a White Sox fan. But by the end of camp, she said, he was wearing Cubs temporary tattoos on his cheeks and a big smile. It turned out learning about fitness also provided a lesson in being open-minded about people he thought were very different from him.

“He began to associate feeling good about himself and being fit with the Cubs,” Martinson said. “He could think, ‘These are the people who taught me that really fun game I play with my brothers now.’”

And while the network of giving stretches well beyond Chicago’s city limits, the Cubs have a particular affinity for the neighborhood that has supported the team for a century. In Wrigleyville and Lake View, Cubs associates pitch in to help solve problems with parking, littering and crime around Wrigley Field.

Recently, the Cubs donated $25,000 to nearby Greeley Elementary School. After years of expansion, the school had outgrown its playground and needed a new, safe space for its youngest students. At the playground’s dedication last summer, students sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” The school’s principal, Carlos Azcoitia, said he’s lucky to have a good neighbor like the Cubs right around the corner.

“We’re grateful they’re investing in the neighborhood school closest to Wrigley Field,” he said. “We’re very fortunate.”

And that’s exactly how many organizations around Chicago and Illinois feel to be associated with a side of the Cubs many people never even see.

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