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Changemakers: The Leaders Reshaping Communities Around the World

With massive changes afoot in technology, the economy, and politics, communities across the U.S.—and around the world—are strained. In fact, the notion that our social fabric is fraying is one of the few things on which most seem to agree. Not many, however, are able to come together on a solution.

Going to Bat for Kids
 

As the 2007 Major League Baseball season dawned, Curtis Granderson’s star was on the rise. He was the Detroit Tigers’ starting center fielder, coming off a year when he hit a notable .302 with 23 home runs, and his team competed in the World Series. At 26 years old, the Chicago-born Granderson had a long and promising career to look forward to.

His adopted hometown, however, was suffering. A recession was looming, and Detroit would become one of the worst-impacted cities in America.

“It hit really hard in Michigan. You saw things like medical institutions closing, dentists closing, schools being affected,” Granderson says. “I remember our manager, Jim Leyland, mentioned, ‘Remember how you guys conduct yourself in the city here. You have a lot of people that are really looking at you guys as an outlet to the frustration of what’s going on in their day.’ ”

Granderson learned that the graduation rate in the Detroit public school system was just 50%. For Granderson—whose parents were educators, and who himself was in the minority of baseball players with a college degree—this figure struck him. “I just was like, wow, only half of the students who start high school here end up graduating? That’s obviously not going to help this problem that’s going on here.”

Granderson realized that as a professional baseball player, he was in a unique position to help. That year, he launched the Grand Kids Foundation, a nonprofit that champions youth development through education, physical fitness, and nutrition. Over the past dozen years, Grand Kids has bloomed into an international organization that has introduced more than 1.5 million children to baseball, and provided more than 20 million meals to families in need in 35 cities in the U.S. and Canada. And Granderson, 38, a three-time All-Star in his 16th professional season, has built himself a lasting legacy as much off the field as on it.

 

Grand Kids’ success was far from a sure thing when it launched in 2007. When Granderson first began raising funds for the foundation, he soon realized he had to lower his expectations. “I remembered seeing stories and watching other foundations and fund-raisers raise six figures, seven figures, and I was like, all right cool, that’s my goal, I’ve seen them do it, I’m ready to do it,” he recalls. “And I think we raised five, maybe 10 thousand dollars [during the first fund-raiser]. And I took it as a disappointment. But then I took a step back and thought, man, $10,000 is still going to help individuals. It’s not going to help as many of them as we can today, but it’s still going to help.”

With those initial contributions, Grand Kids started teaching kids in Detroit about the importance of education in all aspects of life, and encouraging them to play baseball.

In 2009, Granderson became Major League Baseball’s representative for Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, which aimed to reduce childhood obesity—an opportunity that propelled Grand Kids in a new direction. “That brought in the idea of, hey, we’ve got the kids playing baseball, and we’re getting them active—let’s also turn that into helping to fight the childhood-obesity epidemic,” Granderson says.

Grand Kids launched the Fitness Challenge, in coordination with athletic-footwear company New Balance, to teach young people about the importance of fitness and nutrition. The organization also focused on the issue of food insecurity. “We have kids throughout the United States who don’t know where their next meal is coming from,” Granderson says. In 2018 alone, Grand Kids was able to provide 2.5 million meals.

We have kids throughout the United States who don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

—Curtis Granderson

Throughout his career, which has taken him to teams across the Majors—including the New York Yankees and Mets, the Toronto Blue Jays, and, currently, the Miami Marlins—Granderson has brought Grand Kids with him.

Each year, the Grand Kids Summer Series brings between 800 to 1,000 inner-city youth to their first baseball games. In Houston, after Hurricane Harvey, Grand Kids teamed with the No Kid Hungry campaign to feed children in need. Last year in Toronto, it drew over 1,000 children to the New Balance Fitness Challenge.

Granderson is also active in his hometown of Chicago, where in 2013 he donated $5 million of his own money to help build a baseball stadium at his alma mater, the University of Illinois at Chicago. The stadium, named in Granderson’s honor, hosts over 10,000 children at Grand Kids programs each year.

In 2016, Granderson was awarded both the Marvin Miller Man of the Year Award, presented by the MLB Players Association to a player whose on-field achievements and community work inspire others, and MLB’s Roberto Clemente Award, for the player who best exemplifies sportsmanship and community involvement. (Last year, he won the Marvin Miller Award for a second time.)

As his baseball career winds down, fans now recognize him for his achievements both on the field—he’s one of only four players in history to hit 20 singles, 20 doubles, 20 home runs and steal 20 bases in a single season—and for his off-field community-building.

“You’d have fans that would recognize you—‘Hey Curtis, I’m a Detroit Tigers fan, or a Yankee fan, or a Mets fan’—and then you’d also hear people follow it up with, ‘I love what you’re doing in the community with your Grand Kids Foundation,’ ” Granderson says. “That was the part that would hit home. Yes, the baseball side and the athletic side was going to be out in the forefront. But the fact that people were listening and seeing that we are doing some things in the community, that’s when I realized we are making an impact.”

—Mitch Moxley

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