It takes an extraordinary person to manage all the daily operations of running a baseball league for over 1,000 players, and Stockton Junior Giants commissioner Willy Razo deserves to be recognized as such an individual. Not only does Willy run the daily operations, but he has been the key to building the Stockton Junior Giants into the largest league in the program. Many young men and women, as well as their parents and other family members, look up to Willy as a strong role model and friend. This type of relationship would not exist if not for Willy's tireless work ethic, commitment, and care for his community.
Willy's dedication even goes beyond the Stockton city limits. Whether it be taking a group out to AT&T Park to volunteer for the annual Junior Giants Glove Drive, or taking extra time to organize a regional coaches clinic, Willy approaches each task with the same, unrivaled level of enthusiasm and effort. Anyone who interacts with Willy immediately notices his positive spirit and leadership. Without this outstanding commitment, the Junior Giants program in Stockton would not be as successful and make such a difference in the lives of so many youth.
At 10 years old, Modesto resident Coby Beltran has already contributed a lifetime of goodwill. Part of the YMCA of Stanislaus County Junior Giants league, Coby's philanthropic efforts are staggering-his commitment to organizations such as Coats for Kids, Toys for Tots, and The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society are enough to make anyone rethink their own philanthropic efforts.
Coby, who was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy earlier this year after a history of medical complications, truly exemplifies what it means to be a Junior Giant, both on and off the field. Any physical condition is outweighed by his tireless devotion to making a difference in the lives of others. Over the past four years, he has donated over 55 bicycles and countless toys to Toys for Tots. In his spare time, he takes the initiative to hold garage sales as fundraisers and do chores for neighbors. Last year, he raised nearly $6,000 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Starting on January 1, 2009, he'll begin a year-long campaign to raise $10,000 more.
Coby's support of those within his league and beyond is unsurpassed. Whether he's playing baseball or encouraging his teammates during the Junior Giants Summer Reading Program, his dedication and spirit have been instrumental in the growth of the YMCA of Stanislaus County Junior Giants.
On November 8, 2008, Coby officially received the Junior Giants Willie Mac Award, an annual honor recognizing the incredible efforts of various players and coaches throughout the season. Out of over 15,000 Junior Giants players among 80 leagues, Coby was one of only 30 chosen.
Nearly four years ago, the Beckwith family was just a party of three - Alicia, Jason and their one-year-old daughter. They were in the process of moving to Reno, Nevada, when a six-year-old boy in need of foster care was unexpectedly brought into their lives.
That first child was, in Alicia's words, "inspiration to keep going." Over the years, the Beckwith family has provided a foster home to 36 children. Their six-year-old was the first to play Junior Giants baseball.
"I found Junior Giants through the newspaper," says Alicia. "I saw an article about an organized sports program that was free - it was the only one I'd seen."
The Junior Giants program has proven to fit the Beckwith family like a glove. In 2007, four of their 12 foster children participated in program; this year, with at least 15 foster children (not counting their own biological daughter), they anticipate even more will hit the field.
Above all else, Alicia stresses how important the Junior Giants program is in building confidence. "This is a chance for these kids to partake in an organized sport that they couldn't otherwise afford," she says. "It's also something all their friends are doing, so they feel like they belong. On top of that, they learn patience. They learn teamwork."
For Junior Giants Commissioner Kelli Hanson, the rewards of the family's participation are just as great. "It's families like the Beckwiths that make me love what I do," says Kelli. "They've inspired me so much."
To Bruce Harland, the sweetest sounds in the world are the shouts he hears as he goes throughout his daily routine. "Hey, Coach!" "Hi, Coach!" "Coach Bruce!"
Born and raised in Salinas, California, Bruce started volunteering with the American Little League Association in 2003, the same year he learned about the Junior Giants program from an announcement in the local paper. Having inherited his love of sports and charisma with children from his late father, he couldn't resist the opportunity to contribute to both organizations.
Five years later, Bruce no longer participates in Little League but remains an active force with the Junior Giants along with his daughter, Eileen-Jade, who started playing at 6 years old. "Girls make better ballplayers," Bruce maintains. "They have something to prove. Girls are awesome."
Now going on 11 years old, Eileen-Jade is a direct reflection her father's conviction that girls can easily play ball with the boys. Since joining the program, Bruce says, her self-esteem has increased along with her athletic ability. She also has a stronger inclination to voice her opinions. When Bruce suggested she try softball, her response was to not only stick with Junior Giants so she could play "real" baseball with her male peers, but to take on more responsibilities, recruiting other girls from her school and prepping the field with Dad as early as 5:30am.
In addition to allowing girls to realize their full potential, Bruce is passionate about Junior Giants because of the values it instills throughout the entire community. "It gets kids away from the TV and builds their confidence, but the parents can be involved too. More and more, they're coming to player parent meetings, practices, and games," Bruce says. "Growing up, I would have loved to be a part of a program like this. I'm living vicariously through my daughter."
Only one year ago, Isak Chavez was zipping around a soccer field, inhaling the smell of fresh cut grass and booting a black and white checked ball for the Junior Chico Rooks. Then the family received the news that would change the Chavez's life forever: Isak had cancer.
In January of 2007, Isak, age 8, was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, a type of cancer which typically strikes children between the ages of five to eight. Since Isak was always an active and outgoing child, the isolation he experienced during his treatments was almost unbearable for him.
"When he was in the hospital he couldn't be around anyone because of his low immune system, and that really affected him negatively." said his mother, Sandra.
Then, the Chavez family found the Junior Giants. Finally, there was a non-competitive sports program that Isak would be able to participate in with other kids his age, and with little risk to his health.
"The Junior Giants helped boost Isak's confidence because he had thought he couldn't play sports anymore," said Sandra. "He couldn't play soccer or football because if he got any sort of head injury it could have caused internal bleeding."
"One thing people can take away from Isak's story is how strong and courageous the human spirit can be," said Sandra.
Today, Isak has a promising survival rate of 88% and is doing much better. With support from their community, and the Junior Giants program, the Chavez family remains optimistic in Isak's recovery.
When it comes to what Junior Giants is all about, it's hard to find a better example than Austin Burris. Currently playing his second season with the Atwater team, Austin is more than just a star athlete - he excels academically and plays a role in his community, volunteering for events like the Atwater Youth Baseball dinner and the Atwater Fire Department's annual Christmas Parade.
All these things make Austin a role model, but, what makes him a hero is his strength in the face of adversity. Born with Spina Bifida Occulta, a developmental disorder affecting the spinal cord, Austin has spent most of his life facing challenges that would make the average person hold back from doing what they loved. From physical limitations to major surgeries that leave him on the bench for months at a time, Austin meets every setback with his ferocious determination to hit the field and play ball.
In the summer of 2006, Austin played his first season with the Atwater Junior Giants and was later nominated by his coaches and teammates for the Junior Giants Willie Mac Award, an honor that recognizes individuals who have made a positive difference in the program. At the same time, he was also undergoing tests that later revealed kidney damage as a result of complications stemming from his illness. Once again, his positive attitude prevailed, and Austin went on to win the Junior Giants Willie Mac Award and join his teammates on the field at AT&T Park on Junior Giants Day. According to Atwater Junior Giants Coach Jeff Hammar, "His courage, strength, and love for baseball and family make him my hero."
In February of 2007, Austin underwent major surgery to prevent further deterioration of his kidneys, an eight hour procedure that kept him in the hospital for over two weeks and prevented him from playing his favorite sport for at least four months. But like a true baseball fan, he found another way to get on the field, volunteering to help coach his little sister's T-ball team as a way to stay on the sidelines while he recovered.
Now Austin, age 8, is finally getting ready to put his own uniform on for another season with the Atwater Junior Giants. Even now, he'll need to contend with his ailment, between frequent tests and checkups, not to mention the physical changes he has had to endure as a result of his surgery. But what makes Austin so inspirational to his teammates and family members is that he's never let Spina Bifida define him, so what people see more than anything else is a great athlete who won Student of the Month four times. Austin epitomizes what it means to be a Junior Giant.
Gene Tate, who has worked with the Junior Giants organization since 1994, has been named the first-ever recipient of the Grassroots Leadership Award from the Positive Coaching Alliance. The award recognizes Gene's outstanding efforts in youth sports over the years, in addition to the positive effects his work has had on the surrounding community.
Coach Tate, a former resident of East Palo Alto, is deeply involved with several Bay Area youth sports organizations and has spent most of his life as a mentor and coach. In 1992, he founded the East Palo Alto Tee Ball/Pitching Machine Organization, encouraging kids to stay in school and become leaders in their community. Then in 1994, he was part of the pioneering group of Junior Giants Commissioners and established a league in East Palo Alto, which continues to be one of the longest running leagues in the program. In 2003, he expanded the Junior Giants program to Las Vegas, Nevada, where he currently resides and acts as league Commissioner. Gene was honored at the sixth annual National Youth Sports Awards Ceremony at Stanford University, which took place on February 24 and featured a keynote speech by PCA's National Spokesperson and Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson.