HOPE Week: Rockaway Special Athletes

The Yankees launched their fifth annual HOPE Week. Courtesy of New York Yankees

NEW YORK -- Knowing the Yankees would be visiting the Rockaway Special Athletes on Monday led to an early wake-up for 35-year-old member Patrick Tritschler.

"I was up at six o'clock this morning," Tritschler said. "I was so excited."

The Yankees kicked off their fifth annual HOPE Week by spending the afternoon playing various sports with the Rockaway Special Athletes at St. Rose of Lima School in Rockaway Beach. Rockaway Special Athletes is an organization that hosts recreational activities for disabled adults and children.

The Yankees presented the organization with a $5,000 check, and also gave donations to St. Rose of Lima, the group's current host, and St. Camillus, its home before Hurricane Sandy damaged the gym. The group plans to use the money to spend a weekend at the Naval Academy with a former volunteer.

The members were also invited to Monday's Yankees-Royals game, and founder Joe Featherston and one athlete will throw out the first pitch. The Yankees were represented by pitchers Ivan Nova, Adam Warren and Preston Claiborne; infielders Alberto Gonzalez and David Adams; and outfielder Zoilo Almonte.

"I never thought I would be playing kickball or softball with the Yankees. It's totally awesome. I'm loving it," said Tritschler, who has been a member since 1998. "It's better than my birthday. It's great."

Featherston founded Rockaway Special Athletes in 1996, beginning with fewer than 10 members, and it's grown in the past 17 years to host approximately 40-55 people. Featherston said most of the members have cognitive disabilities, although some have physical disabilities.

The program meets once a week on Monday nights from 6:30 to 8 p.m., offering various sports like baseball and soccer.

Monday, the Yankees joined in on the fun. Inside, the six players participated in games of basketball and whiffle ball, while a game of kickball took place outdoors. The Yankees also signed autographs, posed for pictures and ate lunch with the approximately 35 group members in attendance.

"It feels really good. Unbelievable," Nova said of the day's activities. "Something you dream of, and thank God for the opportunity to do it."

He added: "This is something I'm not going to forget."

For several months after Hurricane Sandy, the organization wasn't able to meet as St. Camillus' gym was ravaged by the hurricane. Featherston eventually contacted the nearby St. Rose of Lima, and the school offered to host the weekly night of sports. Featherston remembers the pure excitement of that first night back as all the members rejoiced in being together again.

St. Camillus' is scheduled to be repaired for September. When the Rockaway Special Athletes head back to their home, they'll have a grand story to bring with them, thanks to an afternoon spent playing the games they love with the Yankees.

"It's something they will never forget," Featherston said. "The thrill of a lifetime. Who gets an opportunity to play kickball against Zoilo Almonte and Preston Claiborne? To kick off them, or pitch off them. To shoot hoops with Ivan Nova? Phenomenal. I'm very happy for them."