11/28/10 10:00 AM EST
Shields, wife know importance of family life
Couple works with groups that help foster kids find homes
By Bill Chastain / MLB.com
The Rays' right-hander grew up in an all-American family setting where both parents were present along with two older brothers. So he knew how much it meant to have a great family life. Meanwhile, his wife experienced the other side of the coin, longing for what she did not have.
"I'm an only child and my parents were never married, so I always played the back and forth game," Ryane said. "When I was about 15, my dad ended up taking off and I had to end up living with my aunt. So that's where I can empathize where foster kids are coming from. Not really feeling comfortable in your own setting. And not having your own home or your own bedroom, that kind of stuff.
"I can kind of get a sense about how they might feel. That doesn't even compare, because I still had parents. That's kind of why I have such a big heart for these kids because I can kind of empathize with how they feel. And not having any family or anybody to call theirs just breaks my heart. So anything we can do to bring recognition to them."
Given both of their backgrounds, each understood the value of having a family, though both reached their perspectives from different ends of the spectrum. Thus, they agreed they wanted to give back, when and if James reached a position to do so. But that time did not come quickly. The couple had to carefully manage James' signing bonus after he was selected by the Rays in the 16th round of the 2000 First-Year Player Draft, which had to be wisely spread over five years before he finally reached Tropicana Field and began earning a Major League wage.
Once in a position to help others, the Shields got involved with The Heart Gallery of Tampa Bay and Eckerd Youth Alternatives. All parties have since benefited as a result.
Eckerd Youth Alternatives is the lead agency over child welfare in Pinellas and Pasco counties. It works directly with the children when they come into care and basically have custody of foster children in those counties. So once a child has been removed from their home and they're placed into a group home or foster home, then Eckerd assumes responsibility for that child.
The Heart Gallery was started as a grass roots community effort to help children in foster care find adoptive homes. It has created a physical gallery displaying portraits of foster children taken by professional photographers. It has a website where the photographs are displayed and it does several things to create awareness.
The Heart Gallery and Eckerd Youth Alternatives are distinctly different, but they have a partnership.
Upon reaching the Majors with the Rays in 2006, James did several public service announcements and other assorted things to help out some of the kids for The Heart Gallery, which was the original foster care program that worked with the Rays.
"It kind of turned into something a little bit different," James said. "We ended up getting a little more involved than they asked us to at the beginning. And here we are now."
Each year since getting involved with The Heart Gallery, the Shields have provided a "Heart Gallery Night at the Rays" where the Gallery is on display and many children get to attend and participate in pregame events.
In July, James and Ryane cut the ribbon on the "Big Game James Clubhouse" -- Suite 42 at Tropicana Field -- for foster kids served by The Heart Gallery and Eckerd Youth Alternatives. To help the cause, the Shields, with the help of the Rays, donated a suite at Tropicana Field for the remainder of the 2010 season that was known as the "Big Game James Clubhouse." Benefiting from the Shields' initiative were 50 youngsters from Eckerd Youth Alternatives.
The hope for creating the Big Game James Club was to create normalcy and a sense of stability and belonging for foster children. Eckerd Youth Alternative, which is the group that services foster care kids, divided the kids into groups so that every homestand each of the different groups could take turns attending the games.
"Each of the kids kind of named their own club, so they were coming consistently to the ballpark which was exactly what we wanted the program to do, create a consistent place for them to enjoy baseball," said Suzanne Murchland, Rays senior director, community relations. "It also allowed them to see the same faces, create some consistency in their lives, which is really important for these kids.
"We all had a lot of fun. Ryane Shields was able to come up regularly and visit with the kids. The whole front office staff really embraced the project. They would stop into the club regularly and meet the kids."
In addition to watching the games from the suite, children in the Big Game James Club had the opportunity to meet James on the field before Rays games.
"Growing up having a family, I think is a pretty big deal," James said. "So it's really nice to give back to these kids. You see some of the smiles and some of the way these kids are happy."
James pointed out that through the Big Game James Club they were able to bring together some brothers and sisters who have different foster families.
"It crushes me to see them living apart like that," James said. "But it's kind of funny, you get some of the brothers together and put them up in the Big Game James Club and it's like they never left each other. So I think it's pretty nice."
The kids were hardly the only beneficiaries of the Shields' goodwill.
"I had a blast, just seeing the changes that these kids went through from the very beginning to the very end," James said. "Some of the kids were getting bad grades in school. Next thing you know, at the end of the year, I'm asking and they're telling me they're getting all A's and B's. And they're doing really well.
"All the foster parents and the foster care people were telling me that they're all doing really well at school. Every time I see them, these kids are thanking me. They have huge smiles on their faces. This is just a good opportunity for them to have good memories."
Ryane cherished getting to know the kids.
"I would hang out with them once a week, so each group I got to know and hang out and talk and sing and do the whole thing, and it was absolutely amazing to see the kids and their faces, see them open up," she said. "They weren't timid or ashamed. It was kind of like they took to the Big Game James suite and they felt comfortable.
"They were in their own element and space. And it was just really cool to see their faces light up. They were laughing and singing, talking about who their favorite players were. It was just amazing the talents these kids had. It was awesome."
The Heart Gallery Tampa Bay was the first in the nation to feature both a sight and sound exhibit with audio messages from waiting children. The Rays have afforded the Heart Gallery space for a gallery inside Tropicana Field at the First Base Food court where two portraits are displayed and changed out each month.
"The idea is that they will grab people's attention and guide them to the website where all the children are shown who are available for adoption," said Kristin Brett, Heart Gallery executive director.
Ryane hopes to contribute even more to the gallery in the coming year. She is a professional photographer and hopes to begin shooting pictures of some of the kids to be a part of the gallery that is displayed at Tropicana Field. She is passionate about photography, which should lead to some credible work for the Heart Gallery.
"I just love being able to open up people's views to the world," Ryne said. "I think seeing the world through my eyes, which is the lens, is a pretty good thing to experience with everybody and just capturing moments that you can never get back. That you always have in your memory. Being able to print it out and have forever is a pretty cool thing. That's pretty much why it's always interested me."
Though she has shot countless photographs, she can't think of a more important shoot than one for the Heart Gallery.
"If that can get a kid adopted, it's the most important thing you can do," Ryane said. "Capturing that kid is probably the toughest thing. Because you get these kids and they have a wall up. And you don't want that wall up. You want to break that down and get to the core of who they are. And that way these families can see these kids that way."
James and Ryane plan to continue their work next year, which James said could not be possible without the Rays' support.
"You're got to give a lot of credit to the Rays for making that happen," James said. "They basically put the suite under my name and it just gives these kids something to look forward to."
Simply stated, getting involved with the Heart Gallery and Eckerd Youth Alternatives was a good fit for the Shields.
"James got involved with [The Heart Gallery] and I kind of took off with it as well," Ryane said. "We kind of made it our own thing to give back together. So it's kind of been our thing."
Of the Shields, Brett said, "their dedication and passion for foster children and their support of adoption is truly amazing. Many more children have forever families due to their incredible support."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.