Retired Major League Baseball player Johnny Damon knows the value of the Boys & Girls Clubs and wishes he and his friends had access to more programs like this when they were growing up in southwest Orlando.
Damon was in Winter Garden recently to present a check from the Johnny Damon Foundation for $50,000, which pushes the capital campaign closer to its $1.5 million construction goal.
Damon, a father of eight, met with elementary school students in the Boys & Girls Club, raced them across the basketball court and fielded questions from the young children.
Are you on YouTube? Yes. Have you ever played with Babe Ruth? Only on video games. Did Jackie Robinson play with you? No, I was a lot younger than Jackie. How much do baseball players make? There are some who make $33 million.
What's your favorite part about playing baseball? Teamwork and the camaraderie I had with my teammates. That I had to rely on my pitcher to make good pitches. ... How to play as a team. ... Without teamwork, you are absolutely lost.
The roughly 40 students gathered in the gym to hear Damon talk about his visit.
“This is an awesome place you guys come to every day,” he said. “This is such a great organization that my foundation came today to drop off a check ... so kids coming behind you can enjoy, too.”
Damon, 43, started playing Little League baseball when he was 6. His skills improved the more he played with the older, talented players, he said. He continued playing baseball at Dr. Phillips High School and was planning to play at the University of Florida, but the Kansas City Royals called and turned him pro at age 18.
He was in the Major Leagues for 18 years and won two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. He retired four years ago.
Damon started the Johnny Damon Foundation in 2007.
“This is what it's set up for,” he said. “The reason for the foundation is there's somebody always in need. … And it seems like this place is a wonderful place.”
Damon was introduced to the Boys & Girls Club by Randy June, a friend and owner of June Engineering Consultants.
“He came to me and told me that they were trying to build another facility for these kids, and this is the most important time for these kids,” Damon said. “And if I didn't have great role models at this age, who knows where I would have ended up.
“They need to be taught and in a safe place so they can achieve whatever dreams they have. … I didn't come from much. I understand how tough it can be for these families. We've been able to do so many things and wish the funds were never ending so we can help everyone.”
Damon has agreed to make another donation after his January golf tournament.
In a partnership between the city of Winter Garden and Orange County, a new 10,500-square-foot facility is planned to house the community's Boys & Girls Club. The new county facility will be built on city property near the Mildred Dixon Activity Center on south West Crown Point Road.
The building will include a multipurpose room, small kitchen, youth learning center, computer labs, lounge area, music room, arts lab and teen game room. It will be able to accommodate about 200 children instead of the 60 it now serves.
The club currently meets in a small, 30-foot by 30-foot space in the nearby West Orange Recreation Center.
“We presently are able to only serve only about 60 youth (elementary kids) with space available, but with the new facility will be able to serve more than 200 and, most importantly, will have a facility for both youth and teens,” said Randy June, of June Engineering Consultants.
According to June, 50% of the plans are completed for the new structure and agreements are being drafted with the city of Winter Garden for construction and with Orange County for operations.
“We would like to start construction the first quarter of 2018 and hopefully have completed by fall of 2018,” June said.
Besides Johnny Damon, other supporters to this date are Orange County, the Bond Foundation, Petro Family Foundation, Martin & Gracia Andersen Foundation, Junebug Foundation, Eric Fleischner Family, Winter Garden Rotary Club and the West Orange Junior Service League.
So far, $1.15 million has been raised; $1.5 million is needed for the building and fixtures, and June said an additional $500,000 is needed for operations.