The kids filed into the party room, looked the place over, then politely took their seats.
Surely they’d get a glimpse of the star baseball player himself. Maybe they’d get to say a few words. Maybe even ... a selfie.
What they got on Saturday was the MVP treatment from Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Chris Archer, a Clayton native who has formed his own charitable foundation and one day hopes to build a transitional home for homeless kids. Archer, who works with a youth homeless shelter in Tampa, threw open the doors for 14 local teenagers, complete with lunch, a pile of presents, and words of inspiration.
“I don’t feel like I’m here to play baseball,” Archer said of his philosophy. “I’m here to use baseball as a platform to positively impact lives.”
Many of these kids were not on Santa’s itinerary this Christmas; some are homeless, others in foster care, or otherwise deemed to be at risk. They sleep in cars or bed down in shelters. Two brothers said they’ve been bouncing between friends’ and relatives’ homes going on four years now.
On Saturday, these kids received a Lenovo Ideapad touchscreen laptop, Adidas sports shoes, clothes, toiletries and a $50 gift card.
Archer, 29, came up with the Christmas party idea just 10 days ago. He and his friends arranged for donations from HomeTowne Realty, Walgreens and Vanero’s Pizzeria, and area social workers recommended which kids to invite.
The youngsters arrived for the Christmas lunch thinking perhaps that Chris Archer would be the main draw, but the star pitcher had a different idea: The kids would be the main attraction.
“We wanted a reward for the kids in tough circumstances who are all making the most of it,” Archer said.
If it’s not already apparent, Archer has a proclivity for sounding wiser than his years. The gifts he and his network of volunteers selected were functional, not frivolous. The big league hero made sure to put in some face time with his teen guests.
“We talked about how I need to get my grades up and how my grades can get me far in life,” said 13-year-old Moriah Williams, a 7th-grader at Cardinal Charter Academy.
Shantel Williams, Moriah’s mom, said she has agreed not to buy gifts for her three children as a condition of living at the Carying Place, whose policy is to encourage temporary residents to save money. So any presents Moriah would receive this year would have to come from donations, she said.
Another mom, Tina Corbett, brought her 18-year-old son, Jaylen Harris. Corbett, a pre-school teacher, and her son stayed at the Carying Place four years ago when they went through the program for rebuilding their lives. They are now repaying the goodwill as volunteers at the Carying Place. Corbett said a common emotion an adolescent feels during homelessness is shame.
Jaylen, a senior at Cary High School who would like to join the U.S. Air Force, said that until Saturday’s party, he was getting just two pairs of pants for Christmas.
“I’ve never met a professional athlete. I’ve never been to a professional game,” he said. “This is a good first impression.”