If you want an example of community outreach done right, look no further than the Reds Community Fund and the RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program it sponsors in the greater Cincinnati area.
To gauge the value of RBI to the community, just consider the fact that out of 12 scholarships offered by Major League Baseball to RBI student-athletes across the nation, two of the cash prizes, representing a $20,000 commitment by MLB over four years of college, were awarded to Cincinnati RBI softball players Ashlee Larkins and Kaylyn Schmitz.
Larkins, a Walnut Hills High School grad and rising freshman at Xavier University, and Schmitz, a Taylor High School graduate heading to Eastern Kentucky University, have participated in RBI since they were in eighth grade and have nothing but praise for the program, which they say teaches much more than baseball and softball fundamentals.
"The biggest thing I had to work on was my confidence. Through RBI, I have gained so much confidence … not just playing [softball], but in school, at church," Larkins said. "I actually will come up to someone and talk to them now. That's been my biggest learning experience, and I hope to use that when I become a teacher. I would like to teach my students that they have to have confidence."
Reds Community Fund executive director Charley Frank said that's always been the goal of the program.
"It's the opportunity to participate in select programs that might be difficult for [students] to do otherwise, just based on all of the travel and expense," Frank said. "Athletically, it's a great opportunity for them to play against the best and to be exposed to other scouts and college recruiters.
"But what makes it special to us is that's all about being well-rounded. And I think that's our challenge -- I think we've gotten pretty proficient at the baseball and softball training portion, but we are constantly trying to challenge ourselves to be better at what we're providing the young men and women through education and mentoring and opportunities."
To hear Larkins and Schmitz tell it, RBI has gone above and beyond the bare minimum, fostering unprecedented new friendships with fellow students from around the city.
"It's really about being a family," Larkins explained. "I've never had this connection with another team before. It's been so great having that support and love from other girls on my team that are the same age -- and the coaches too. The coaches are amazing."
Frank called the RBI program a youth-development operation as opposed to a baseball and softball development operation.
"Other organizations might hang their hat on the number of signed pro contacts [to come out of their RBI programs], but this to us is the pinnacle, to have them as well-rounded people coming out of high school and having this great opportunity for them and their families," Frank said prior to an early July on-field pregame ceremony to honor Larkins and Schmitz.
In fact, Schmitz called the essay required as part of the scholarship application -- the topic of which centered on discussing the significance RBI held for its participants -- the "easiest essay I've ever written" because of how much RBI has meant to her.
"I was the shy one on the team. I would not talk to anyone. I was always the quiet little girl in the dugout. And I definitely learned to open up and talk to others [through RBI]," she said. "I've gotten to meet some awesome girls and make friendships that I know for a fact that aren't going to go away. I'm always going to have my RBI family to come back to."
Meggie Zahneis, winner of the 2011 Breaking Barriers essay contest, earned the job of youth correspondent for MLB.com in the fall of '11. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.