A Day With The Yankees

Do you know that feeling when you wake up from a great dream and stay very still so you can hold onto the story just a little bit longer before it evaporates into the daylight? That’s what it felt like as I drove home Wednesday night after spending 12 hours in the bright light of the New York Yankees during their annual HOPE Week celebration.

How it happened

Last year, 17-year-old Max Freyman wrote a blog post about a fundraiser he organized at Camp Baco in memory of his dad. They posted that blog on their social media and one of the Baco alumni passed it along to her husband, who works for the Yankees. Shortly after, Experience Camps was selected as an honoree of the Yankees’ annual HOPE Week initiative.

Yankees with campers

Photo Credit: New York Yankees

What went down

We invited 11 of our camper families in the NY area to join us for an all-day experience of surprise and delight. We arrived at Dave & Buster’s that morning to find that the Yankees had rented out the entire space. Kids were given game cards and set loose in the arcade. We gathered everyone for welcoming remarks, and in walked 10 Yankees players, who had all volunteered to spend the morning hanging out with our campers. They each paired off with one or two kids and went back to the arcade to get to know each other through the common language of Mario Cart and air hockey.

After lunch, everyone circled up for an impromptu “sharing circle.” Campers raised their hands to talk about their people that died and what it was like for them to go to camp, where everyone gets it. 

Sharing circle with Yankees

Photo credit: New York Yankees

Yankees pitcher, Clay Holmes, spoke of how courageous it is to be open about your feelings and how important it is in professional sports to talk about mental health. Outfielder, Jahmai Jones, shared his story of losing his dad when he was 13, and how he wished there was something like Experience Camps for him back then. I did interviews with Bruce Beck from NBC and with the YES Network. MLB.com reported the story here.

We arrived at batting practice that afternoon and were escorted onto the field directly in front of the Yankees dugout. We had a front-row seat to each player walking out onto the field, signing balls for the kids, and warming up for the game. Manager, Aaron Boone, stopped to say hello, and the players who had joined us that morning went out of their way to greet the kids like old friends.

Manager Aaron Boone, from Yankees, with campers

Photo credit: New York Yankees

And then this happened…

At the end of batting practice, Jahmai Jones called me over and said, “You’re going to throw out the first pitch.” To which I replied, “no, I’m not.” I spent the next five minutes lightly hyperventilating and finally agreed to do it. Fortunately, I would be joined by six of our campers who I figured would distract everyone from my unpredictable throwing arm.

But first, more surprises. They lined us up on the field as the announcer introduced Experience Camps and showed a video of our morning at Dave & Buster’s on the Jumbotron, and then Haley and Julia Steinbrenner walked over with a giant check made out to Experience Camps.  Another guy appeared and presented me with a Lifetime Achievement Award from Americorp signed by President Joe Biden. I was somehow totally unaware of the stadium filled with people around me. I couldn’t believe this was all happening.

Sara Deren receiving check

Photo credit: New York Yankees

Then they hustled me and the six  campers out onto the field, we counted to three and together threw out the ceremonial first pitch into the gloves of seven Yankees lined up across from us. Camper, Levi, who was standing next to me, was determined to “bring the heat.” My goal was to not hit a by-stander. We both succeeded.

Throwing out first pitch

Photo credit: New York Yankees

We got to watch the game from our seats (section 214B in case you’re curious) amongst the 60 campers, family members and ExCamps friends we were allowed to invite. The Yankees lost to the Orioles in extra innings, but most of us were sound asleep with smiles on our faces by that point, holding on to the dream.

Sara Deren is the Chief Executive Officer of Experience Camps. Under her leadership, Experience Camps has conducted original research on the state of grief and launched 10 camp program sites from coast to coast with a waitlist for grieving children that is growing 300% year over year. In 2020, she received an award for “Best Entrepreneurial, Scaling” from Connecticut Entrepreneur Awards, and was named a “Patriots Difference Maker” by The Krafts Family and Patriots Foundation. Sara was named by Causeartist one of 32 nonprofit leaders who will impact the world in 2022.