The Springhill Park Community Center, typically a hub of activity in the Sulphur Springs community, buzzed with a different kind of excitement last week.
Families trickled in Dec. 20 to find tables set with their name tags. One wall was stacked halfway to the ceiling with an array of wrapped gifts. Young eyes cast eagerly toward a row of brand-spanking new bicycles, each with a name tag hung on the handlebars. Opposite the entrance, a 7-foot Christmas tree sparkled with a Washington Nationals baseball cap perched atop it.
Standing next to the tree and behind a plexiglass lectern was major-league centerfielder Denard Span. Span took on the role of Santa Claus as he addressed a hand-selected group of families that had no idea what was in store for them.
"I didn't know anything about this at all," Sulphur Springs resident Denise Kelly said.
Kelly brought along her son Christian, 5 and she knew she was being selected by the community center for some sort of charitable event, but the details remained a mystery until the moment Span got up to speak.
"At first, I wanted to say, 'no,' because I knew there were others that needed it more," Kelly said. "I wasn't expecting anything."
What Kelly and nine other families got was a Christmas blessing dubbed the Denard Span Foundation's Merry Christmas Celebration, put together by Span's foundation, the Springhill Community Center, and TORCH, or Taking Opportunities to Reach Compelling Heights.
Span, a Tampa Catholic graduate and the Tampa Bay Times' Hillsborough County Player of the Year in 2001, is no stranger to community outreach. During his professional baseball career, he has put together programs in each of the cities where he played. For the past two years, Span has played for the Washington Nationals and has sponsored families coming to games, where he would meet with them afterward.
Span was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in 2002 and made his big-league debut with the franchise in 2008. While in Minnesota, Span ran a community outreach bowling event that connected with needy families.
"Once I became established as a player, I really wanted to give back," Span said. "I looked around and I felt like this was a good area (to hold the foundation's first event) and I liked the programs here at Springhill."
Span and foundation executive director Carolynn Smith got together with Springhill Park site supervisor Harold Hart and the plan began to take form.
"We knew we had the budget for 10 families, so we started with families that had kids involved in the G3 sports program and were registered for programs at the center," Smith said.
Span began to reveal what awaited the families. He shared some of his experiences growing up in a single-parent household and connected with a host of parents and children that currently undergo some of those same challenges.
"I really identified with the part about how his (Span's) mom was the cornerstone of the family and how he said he'd see her come home from work beat down and that one day he was going to take care of her," said Trevon Roberts, 18. "His (Span's) story empowers me to do good."
Span's story about keeping his eye on the prize and not getting distracted by temptations as an adolescent in an urban community reached every ear even if eyes were still cast at the shiny bicycles. He talked about resisting the temptations of drugs and alcohol.
"I always wanted to go further than that moment," Span said. Little was lost as the speaking ended and the gifting began. Adults and children alike dove into wrapped packages, each got to choose books from "Bess the Book Bus" and of course, the bikes were distributed. Carl Presley, 14, could not contain the grin stretched across his face as he sat atop his new bicycle.
"I didn't know that was coming," Presley said. "I was like, 'that's mine, really?' I really do appreciate it."
As the families stopped and chatted with Span and snapped group photos with the major-leaguer, few were as delighted as Span, having seen his inaugural Tampa charity event come to fruition.
"It's everything I imagined and more," Span said. "For these two hours, I wanted these families to have no worries and their reactions were priceless."
It won't be the last the Sulphur Springs community will see of Span, either. Span, Smith and the Springhill Community Center plan to make it an annual event and are already exploring future possibilities. Smith mentioned a Thanksgiving activity and a baseball camp hosted by Span as being potential events for 2015.
Contact Andy Warrener at [email protected]