For Good: How Tampa Bay Rays give back off the field

At Tropicana Field, the Chief People + Culture Officer keeps stacks of handwritten thank you notes that date back to 2008. 

A stick figure drawing from a local school boy has been taped to her door for at least 2 years. For Jenn Tran, these are treasures. Each one is a tangible reminder of how the Tampa Bay Rays organization is helping people far beyond the baseball field.

“There’s no secret purpose behind it,” says Tran. “Organizations ask for help. We look at what their specific needs are, who they are serving, and how we can help them serve the most people. Then, we go after it.” 

Community fund grants
 
The Rays Baseball Community Fund Grants have been going after such opportunities for 14 years. Since 2008, more than $2 Million in Community Fund Grants have been awarded to local nonprofits. The next round of recipients will be selected after all submissions are in on March 31. 
 
“We want to see these agencies survive and thrive,” says Bill Weiner, Chief People + Community Officer. “Every year we bring these groups together to meet one another and see how they may be able to help one another. They  establish relationships and help each other above and beyond what the Rays do for them.” 

Both Weiner and Tran have worked for the Rays organization for approximately 25 years and are looking forward to seeing new applicants. Reading the compelling stories of every day people doing extraordinary things, makes this a favorite time of year but not their busiest.  The Community Fund Grant cycle each spring is a fraction of the community work the Rays quietly engage in year round.  

Student scholarships in 5 counties

For over a decade, Educator Lincoln Tamayo has had a front row seat to the incredible transformation of his students thanks to full scholarships funded by the Rays Baseball Foundation. Tamayo runs Academy Prep Center, a middle school for kids in some of the more impoverished areas in the region. The Rays have donated a half-million dollars to the schools, to date.    

“Our students have benefitted immensely, with many coming from neighborhoods where barely half of the adults hold high school diplomas,” says Tamayo, Chief Operating Officer of Academy Prep Foundation, which supports the school’s campuses in Hillsborough, Pinellas, and Polk counties. “In great part through the generosity of the Rays Baseball Foundation, Academy Prep Centers have gifted the children of Lakeland, St. Petersburg, and Tampa an exceptional private middle school education followed by eight years of graduate support through the college prep and college years.”
 
“Volunteerism and giving back to the community is part of our DNA,” says Bill Wiener of the Tampa Bay Rays.
So far, 33 students have received full scholarships, but hundreds more of their classmates have been treated to home games, and other in-kind experiences donated by the Rays and the Rays Baseball Foundation. 

At the Ybor City campus, Head of School L’Tanya C. Evans describes the impact to its economically disadvantaged students as priceless. She calls it “a gift that keeps on giving by modeling the kind of commitment to community leadership that empowers and inspires our students to emulate.” 

The student success stories are in five Tampa Bay Area counties thanks to $2 Million in Rays Baseball Foundation scholarships awarded since 2008.      

Rays Jersey Program
 
On the playing field of Tee-Ball and Little Leagues, another Rays’ community program has been at work for nearly 8 years. Started in 2014, the Rays Jersey Program has outfitted 90,000 kids and coaches in 80 leagues across nine counties. 

The annual supply of new T-shirts and baseball caps for every child and coach has saved the teams an estimated $1 Million in equipment costs. 

“We’ve heard that from the leagues. For them not to have to spend those monies enables them to fix up their concession stands, put more money into their fields, fix their hitting cages,” explains Wiener. “What we contribute in jerseys and caps, helps them spend their money elsewhere. It helps stretch their finite resources.” 

Domestic violence awareness in stadium

No need or place is off limits, not even the bathroom. 

Since 2017, the Rays have done something no major league baseball team has. They installed domestic violence awareness posters inside every bathroom at Tropicana Field and at the Rowdies’ Al Lang Stadium.

That’s close to 400 bathroom signs boldly displaying the local and national DV hotlines installed in the men’s bathrooms, as well as the women’s.

“Each year over 1 million people visit Tropicana Field. Thanks to the Rays generosity, our restroom signage throughout the stadium has reached countless survivors,” explains Lariana Forsythe, CEO of CASA (Community Action Stops Abuse” in St. Petersburg. “For many survivors, the restroom may be their only reprieve and a chance to make a call to our 24-hour hotline.”

A picture of these messages scribbled next to the hotline is worth a thousand words.

“I don’t want to get emotional about it,” says Jenn Tran, the Rays’ Chief People Officer. “We have found so many personal messages on the backs of these stalls, thanking us for having this and encouraging others (victims) to call the hotline if they need help. To see the handwritten notes, it makes me very emotional.” 

Reading with the Rays
 
The Rays oldest community initiative was certainly put to the test three months into the COVID-19 global pandemic. Its Reading with the Rays program was in trouble. The annual tradition keeping school kids reading and learning during summer break was impossible to execute in a world where libraries, camps and most community centers were closed due to COVID quarantines. Then came the pivot. With Rays’ Pitcher Ryan Yarbrough doing story time from his house and his wife Nicole recording him on an iPhone camera, Reading with the Rays went online and stayed that way into Summer 2021. 

As the program enters its 15th year this summer, the Rays hope to bring back its tradition of community reading events with ballplayers and its mascots, as well visits to the baseball diamond by top readers.

Since its inception, Reading with the Rays has garnered 400,000 participants and, to the delight of teachers and kids, survived the pandemic. 

COVID-relief programs 

The list of COVID-relief programs funded by the Rays Baseball Foundation and the Rowdies Soccer Fund is a long one. In all, more than $1.4 Million were donated by the Rays through the COVID-19 Relief Grant Program.  

For longtime community partners like Feeding Tampa Bay, the donations provided epic help during a season of epic need. 

On April 11, 2020, parking Lot 9 of Tropicana Field was turned into a “mega” food pantry every Saturday morning to serve more than 500 families. Rays employees helped raise over $400,000 for Feeding Tampa Bay. That is enough money to provide 2.4 million meals.

“Volunteerism and giving back to the community are part of our DNA, ” says Bill Weiner, the Rays’ Chief People + Community Officer. “Most of the time we’re just trying to do the right thing for people. You don’t always hear about it because we don’t do it for media coverage.” 

Thomas Mantz, President and CEO of Feeding Tampa Bay, sums things up this way: “For many causes and far more people, the Rays have stood up and offered time, awareness and financial support, lifting many to a better place. We are fortunate to have a great team on the field, but far better off because of the work they do off the field.”

To learn more about these and other specific programs, visit the Tampa Bay Rays Baseball Foundation. This story is underwritten by the Tampa Bay Rays in a new media partnership with 83 Degrees Media.