When Erika Rech watched New York Yankees games on television as a little girl growing up in New Jersey, she dreamed of being at Yankee Stadium.
Sunday, Rech stood on the field at Yankee Stadium, waiting to throw out the ceremonial first pitch as the team's honoree in Major League Baseball's Honorary Bat Girl program.
"I don't even know what I'm feeling," the 19-year-old Villanova University sophomore said minutes before she took the mound. "It's so exciting. This is like a dream come true. I never thought I'd ever, in a million years, be here."
Baseball fans have grown accustomed to seeing players use pink bats, batting gloves, wristbands and cleats on Mother's Day as part of the league's "Going to Bat Against Breast Cancer" program, introduced in 2006. In 2009, MLB added the Honorary Bat Girl contest, which honors 30 women (one for each team) affected by the disease.
Rech's journey to this improbable moment as the Yankees' representative started when her mother, Carol, was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer in 2007. Within six months of receiving that news, two of Rech's aunts also had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Rech, then 15, and her cousin Mike Ruane decided to take action to help not just their family members, but other women struggling to deal with the disease.
Together, the two cousins scraped together $1,000 in savings and co-founded "Breast Intentions," a charity to directly help women affected by breast cancer. Since December 2007, the organization has raised more than $500,000 and expanded beyond New Jersey to New York, Massachusetts, Illinois and Georgia, with plans to add six new chapters in the near future.
All of the money raised so far has gone directly to help women in need pay for expenses, including mortgages, medication, utility bills, car payments, textbooks, household items, insurance premiums, phone bills and taxes. Breast Intentions relies on word of mouth and also works with social workers and local oncologists to help find women who might benefit from their funds.
"I hope this game really lets people know about what we do and how we're different," Rech said. "We help women directly with things that they might need -- we're not just some organization looking for the cure -- which is great."
Rech, who wore the jersey of her favorite player, Derek Jeter, reflected on how far she and Breast Intentions have come in four years.
"I definitely grew up a lot doing the charity," Rech said. "Starting when I was just 15, it was a big change. I found that if you look hard enough, you can find the time to prioritize and give the gift of your time to someone else. It's really paid off in the end. Look where I am and how many people I was able to touch."
Rech's mother stood proudly on the field next to her daughter wearing a matching Jeter jersey. The mother of two marked five years of being cancer free last fall (Rech's aunts also are in remission). Carol Rech knew her daughter would be honored at Yankee Stadium for her hard work, but Erika Rech had a special surprise for her mom.
"I didn't know I would be on the field with her until we got here," Carol Rech said as her eyes filled with tears. "She surprised me for Mother's Day and she's just an extraordinary young lady.
"It's Mother's Day and it's about honoring not just mothers, but the courageous women that fight this fight every day. That's what this is all about."
For more information about Breast Intentions, visit the organization's website at http://breastintentions.org/.