As a child, Owen Sarwatka of Lutz says he was often left out on the playground and always picked last for sports.
"I didn't have a lot of friends growing up," he said. "I was never really given the opportunity to get involved in games."
But the Academy at the Lakes senior always had a passion for baseball, and as he got a little older, a passion for helping others.
Now, the young founder of Everyone Can Play! helps children with special needs learn the game that gave him a sense of purpose—and other teens a chance to become involved not only as mentors, but as business leaders.
Sarwatka's nonprofit organization, founded in 2010 as an Eagle Scout project, produces day-long clinics for kids with special needs. The clinics, which are facilitated by local teens, focus on the skills aspect of the game, such as hitting, fielding and throwing the ball.
Those skills give them a base—and the confidence—to join in organized leagues like Little League Baseball's Challenger program, he said.
"I always played baseball," Sarwatka, 18, said. "I never had siblings and I've always wanted to mentor kids and help them learn to play."
He also wanted to do something to honor the memory of George Steinbrenner, whom Sarwatka looked up to not only for his contributions to the game, but for his contributions to the Bay area.
"He'd done so much for kids in the community," Sarwatka said.
But providing kids with an opportunity to learn baseball skills is just one aspect of Sarwatka's mission.
"I was always last to be picked for games. I felt excluded and I wanted to do something for kids who felt the same way."
Children with special needs often are left out and bullied at school, he said. That was a feeling he could relate to, and creating a program that encouraged teens to form bonds with the youngsters was a way for him to help combat the problem.
"Bullying is everywhere," he said. "What we're trying to do is get kids who aren't used to being around children with special needs to spend time with them and see that they're really just like us."
Kids are less likely to pick on others who may be perceived as different once a relationship like that has developed, Sarwatka said.
Though the clinics only last a day, organizing them has become a full-time job for Sarwatka. He facilitates board meetings, oversees grant writing and fund-raising efforts, communicates with parents, plans the events and trains volunteers.
The clinics are free for children with special needs to attend, but they're not free to produce. And raising money isn't easy. Sarwatka has a team of other teens who serve on the board. They write letters, produce newsletters and help raise funds, in addition to planning and executing the clinics. And in helping others, the teens are learning valuable skills that will serve them well in college and in their careers, Sarwatka's mom and organization director Suzanne Sarwatka said.
It's a win-win for the teens and the kids they serve. And its worth the time, and money, he's invested.
Owen hasn't had a Christmas in three years, Suzanne Sarwatka said. He goes without gifts to put money into the organization.
It's not easy as a parent to not have presents for your child to unwrap, she said. "But it's a good feeling knowing you're helping so many people."
The gifts come later, in the form of stories from parents of participants who say their child has new confidence and new skills that help them both on and off the field.
The gifts multiply when the lives of the teen volunteers are changed, as well.
To see these high school baseball players come of the field at the end of the day in tears, with a new appreciation for what these kids go through to do the little things that come so easily for others, "they're humbled by it," Suzanne Sarwatka said.
"It's awesome," she said.
Sarwatka has had his own set of challenges to face, but despite the hurdles—or perhaps, in part, because of them—he has persevered.
The teen underwent ten surgeries in less than a year between late 2011 and 2012 to treat chronic pain caused by kidney dysplasia, he said.
The pain didn't put a damper on his passion. The clinics went on as planned. Sarwatka kept up a 3.8 GPA. And last year, he had more than 350 volunteers from local high schools come out to form friendships and and mentor the young athletes he cares so much about.
The New York Yankees honored Sarwatka for his efforts at a game in Tampa on March 23, 2012 as part of the organization's HOPE Week events.
After graduation, Sarwatka plans to attend college to pursue a degree in biomedical engineering, though he's not sure yet where he will be. One thing he is sure of: He will continue to run—and grow—Everyone Can Play from wherever he ends up.
He wants to see the program operating all over the East Coast in the next seven years. He also wants to add clinics for other sports.
Helping kids, making them feel they're a part of the game, is what drives him.
"The passion comes from knowing that you're changing someone's life and giving someone an opportunity," Sarwatka said.
The next Everyone Can Play! clinic will be held from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Jan. 12 at Northside Little League, 2650 N. Lakeview Drive in Tampa. Volunteers, players and spectators welcome. Check the website for details.