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Charity fills unused Rays seats with kids in need

Twelve-year-old Josh, in red shirt, attends a Rays game with Les Saland, who is his Big Brother from Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay, Ashley, 14, and her Big Sister Michelle Stoner. The tickets were provided by Seats of Dreams.

JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times

Twelve-year-old Josh, in red shirt, attends a Rays game with Les Saland, who is his Big Brother from Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay, Ashley, 14, and her Big Sister Michelle Stoner. The tickets were provided by Seats of Dreams.

Sarah Rose had only ever watched the Tampa Bay Rays on TV.

The 18-year-old had never heard the crack of the bat or felt the surge of the crowd around her — until April.

Thanks to free tickets from the charity Seats of Dreams, which transfers unused event tickets to disadvantaged, disabled or sick kids, she finally made it to Tropicana Field.

"When you're watching it on TV, it seems pretend. Your brain doesn't click that it's really happening," Rose said. "It was very unreal, actually hearing them hit the ball. You get to see them warming up. You get to see them stretch."

Brookwood, the St. Petersburg home for troubled young women where Rose lives, is one of a few dozen Tampa Bay-area charities that benefit from Seats of Dreams. Others include Boys & Girls Clubs and local YMCAs.

Seats of Dreams, which got its nonprofit accreditation last year, is the creation of David Bieber, 53, and Clint Greenbaum, 56.

As a kid in a tough Brooklyn neighborhood, Bieber found respite in the annual Yankees game he got to attend.

When he retired from his position managing Accenture's North American utility practice a few years ago, wanting to help the community, he found himself remembering those games. He and Greenbaum, a private investor and Kansas City Royals fan who used to work on Wall Street, developed Seats of Dreams.

Bieber had seen the Rays play in his years commuting to Tampa Bay for Accenture, and he always admired the team's commitment to charity. That made them a natural fit for the program, he said — not to mention his shifted allegiance from the Yankees to the Rays.

Bieber contacted the team before the season started, said Brian Richeson, vice president of sales and service for the Rays, who coordinated implementation on the Rays' end. "We really agreed with his vision," he said.

Seats of Dreams has one other official partnership —- the Boston Blades, a women's hockey team — though Bieber said they're working on securing the Yankees.

The system is simple. Season ticket holders log in on the Rays' site and forward tickets to Seats of Dreams, which sends them a receipt for tax purposes. Seats of Dreams alerts charities in its network, which claim the tickets and fill the seats.

This season, Seats of Dreams has given out about 2,100 seats, and an anonymous donor recently funded the purchase of 3,000 seats for September games.

Richeson said those who donate once usually do it again.

"I was really surprised with how fast season-ticket holders adapted to the program," he said. "We got an automatic, really positive response."

Paul Brown, a part-time consultant for the Army National Guard, and his wife have held season tickets for three years. They've donated about 10 games' worth of tickets to Seats of Dreams. Brown, 61, said he likes to provide seats for Sunday games, when the Rays have giveaways for kids.

"Some of my fondest memories as a child were going to baseball games," he said, recalling 100-mile trips to see the Cincinnati Reds. "I think baseball and growing up just go hand in hand."

For now, everyone at Seats of Dreams is working pro bono, Bieber said. The charity takes tickets for other events, too.

"Whether it be theater, the ballet, or a play, we just want to give kids the opportunity to see things and hear things and experience things they couldn't otherwise on their own," he said. "We're creating something of value that the day after would be worthless."

Sharon Poore, a youth care worker at Brookwood who chaperones trips to the games, said it has been exciting watching girls discover a love of baseball.

"Some of them go because they want the pizza or to see the boys, but once they go and see the excitement, and see the players and (mascot) Raymond and all the silly games, they start to get interested," she said.

Poore sees the benefits of their burgeoning interest.

"If they grow up going to games, maybe they can take their kids," she said. "That's the whole magic of baseball. It's family time."

At a recent Rays game, 12-year-old Josh sat and cheered with Les Saland — his Big Brother in Tampa Bay's Big Brothers Big Sisters program. Though Josh's first love is football, he said he loved the frenzy of the game and spending time with his friend.

Saland said exposing kids like Josh to the values of teamwork is invaluable.

"It's knowing the good of the team is the greater good, even if you can't be the star," he said. "I don't know if (the people who donate) realize the value of what they're giving to us."

Claire McNeill can be reached at cmcneill@tampabay.com.

Charity fills unused Rays seats with kids in need 08/12/13 [Last modified: Monday, August 12, 2013 10:42pm]
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