How the Toronto Blue Jays are helping bring baseball to a northwestern Ontario community
A new baseball diamond is on deck for a small northwestern Ontario community just north of Thunder Bay, and residents say they have the charitable arm of the Toronto Blue Jays to thank for it.
Currently, families in Lappe, which has a population of roughly 4,500, must drive 30 minutes to Thunder Bay to participate in organized sports.
But the Lappe and Area Local Services Board is working to bring recreation closer to home. The board — which provides services across the boundaries of Ware, Gorham, Jacques and Fowler — recently purchased a property on Old Hall Road to be developed as a hub for community recreation.
Part of that property's development has been creating the community's first ball field.
Last spring, board members learned of the Jays Care Foundation, the MLB team's charity, and its annual Field of Dreams grant program, and decided to pitch an application. The grants are for communities to either improve existing baseball facilities or construct new ones.
More than 100 communities and organizations applied this year — the most to date — and Lappe is among 15 successful applicants across Canada.
Residents gathered at Gorham and Ware Community Public School, clad in blue and white, to watch the livestream Sunday to find out whether they would be getting the grant. Minutes before the announcement was made, a power outage nearly halted the celebrations, but a Bluetooth speaker came in clutch to broadcast the news.
"There was a huge [uproar] of commotion and excitement and emotions from the community. Everybody just was screaming with excitement that we got [the livestream] going and that we got the $50,000, so it was pretty amazing," said the board's recreation director, Lindsay Sipila.
The $50,000 Jays Care grant will cover nearly half the cost of the more than $100,000 project, she said.
Making sports more accessible
Robert Witchel, executive director of Jays Care, said Lappe's application stood out, especially since most organizations are applying for upgrades rather than a brand-new diamond.
The organization recognized the challenges Lappe families face in accessing sports and is excited to support the community-driven project, he said.
"So many life skills are learned on the field and learned through organized sport," Witchel said. "As we come out of the pandemic, we've seen a lot of mental health issues, a lot of anxiety. The isolation has been very difficult, particularly on children.
"Getting kids out to play, having a new facility is very exciting and that should attract more kids, and we're hoping that they can sort of reconnect and relearn some of their social skills that have been lost during the pandemic," he said.
More than $1.5 million was distributed through the Field of Dreams program this year, he said.
Bringing recreation back to Lappe
While Lappe programs are often run at Gorham and Ware Community Public School, having the recreation property allows activities to be run year-round.
So far, soccer fields and a hockey rink have been set up on the property. Last year, the baseball field was seeded and fencing is already being put up, and the hope is for the diamond to be ready for play by the fall.
Besides saving families travel time and gas money, Sipila said, having more recreation facilities in Lappe evokes stronger community pride.
The recreation committee is seeking feedback to see what else residents want to see. Some ideas on the horizon are a second ice rink, volleyball courts and a community garden.
"There's a lot of ideas, so the possibilities at this point are endless. We're just really excited," said Sipila.