Tampa Bay Rays senior vice president Mark Fernandez grew up in Tampa admiring the dynamic play of University of Tampa quarterback Freddie Solomon and walking from his abuela's West Tampa home to Al Lopez Field to see Cincinnati Reds spring training games with Pete Rose and Joe Morgan. • Consequently, when he makes his way to work each day, the trek leaves him a little awestruck. • "I drive to work every day thinking, 'I'm going to a ballpark to work,' " Fernandez recently explained. "One of the jokes I have with friends and co-workers is that I hope I never have to get a real job." • However, when it comes to community service, Fernandez doesn't joke at all. He's been an integral part of the Rays Baseball Foundation since joining the Rays in December 2005, and his involvement in the United Way Suncoast has been significant. • His latest United Way effort involves helping to infuse the nonprofit's Bridges leadership program, which seeks to connect minority professionals with the organization and the social service groups it supports in both the Tampa Bay and Sarasota areas. • Fernandez also is completing his one-year term as campaign chairman for the United Way Suncoast this summer after serving as chairman of its Tocqueville Society fundraising efforts in 2011. In 2010, he received the organization's inaugural Advocacy Award for his service. • Fernandez recently shared with Times columnist Ernest Hooper his passion for service and why the Rays try to go beyond writing checks and get personally involved.
You've been heavily involved with the United Way here, but as I recall, your involvement dates back more than 20 years when you first worked for the Phoenix Suns.
I had the fortunate benefit of working for people who were really committed to community work. It's like when you talk about being a parent and teaching your kids by example — I get up and go to work every day because my father did that, not because he told me to. Well, I got involved in United Way and community activity years ago because the people I worked for set an example, not just because they said this is important. Certainly, they wrote checks, but they also led the campaigns and hosted activities and put people together to maximize their community impact agenda.
How did the Arizona experience influence your outlook on community?
I realized early on that, wow, you can actually be of service through the assets and influence of your organization. You can be a convener and make that impact. When you're a young person, you're taught about your individual opportunities: volunteer, write a check. But at some point, if you take being a leader seriously, you realize, "Wait a second, we can actually make a difference by convening." That light bulb went off and that's what's driven me ever since.
You serve on a number of boards, including the Helios Education Foundation and the Tampa Bay Partnership. What keeps you going?
I love the idea of being a servant-leader. I'm hesitant to use the word leader because it sounds self-serving . . . but being a dad and thinking about trying to make this a better place to live, that fires me up. Your first responsibility is to your family and to the folks who you work for, but if you can use all of that energy and experience and resources to be of service to your community, that's a pretty powerful thing and it's energizing.
Has there been a particular United Way effort that's really resonated with you?
The one that comes to mind is the work we've done in south St. Petersburg and the Campbell Park neighborhood. It's right in the shadow of Tropicana Field. Seventy-five percent of the young men who live in that community aren't graduating from high school. A lot of the employees who work for us, who work very hard and are part of the Rays family, live in that neighborhood. The credit really goes to our employees who said, "We need to do more." . . . But we realized pretty quickly that we needed to bring in more expertise to help us in those neighborhoods and that's when we turned to the United Way. We commissioned a study for them to understand how we could best make an impact in that neighborhood. It starts with not assuming you know how to make an impact but asking that community how can we be of service and then you're invited into that community.
That reminds me of a saying I heard once: Nothing about us without us.
That's exactly right. What we learned from the United Way study — they talked to community leaders, the school system, JWB (Juvenile Welfare Board), the community centers — was there was a real concern with truancy at the elementary school level. We also had our friends from Jabil who wanted to do something with us, so we chose to start this program under the United Way's guidance called, "Walking School Bus." It's really been unbelievable. It's only worked because JWB and the school system and the city of St. Petersburg and All Children's Hospital and all these folks came together. Now there are volunteers and employees meeting parents, grandparents and guardians at about eight different points throughout the neighborhood to create this safe walking-to-school environment.
They walk to school as a group?
Yes. It's really incredible. What's happened is that not only has it helped with that truancy issue and created a greater sense of pride for that school and that community, it's also led to the introduction of other opportunities like reading pals through the Bridges program. If families have needed an introduction to services such as financial literacy or work services, they have found those through this program as well.
Your love of sports came from watching the Reds and Freddie Solomon. What about your sense of community?
I am a child of a schoolteacher. I watched my mom be a dedicated schoolteacher for 40 years. You don't realize you're being taught that when you're a kid, but you are. At the end of the day, her job was being of service. She took it seriously. My parents taught us that our responsibility was to work hard and help people when you can.
Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.