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07/21/09 12:10 AM ET

With HOPE, Yanks brighten youths' lives

Group of players visit teens to honor budding organization

NEW YORK -- Mariano Rivera just wanted some fresh air when he tried to quietly exit Marco and Jennifer Chiappetta's living room for a moment. The legendary closer had spent part of his afternoon in a cramped space packed to capacity with a group of teenagers -- not to mention the slew of media members wielding television cameras in an apartment designed for no more than a few people, let alone a few dozen.

When Rivera stood up, the sea of humanity melting in the scorching heat stood at attention and parted, trying to clear a path for the future Hall of Famer, lest they accidentally get in his way. Marco Chiappetta just couldn't find a spot, and Rivera bumped him on the way by. Chiappetta was embarrassed, his face red and expression sheepish. Rivera looked right at him and apologized. Chiappetta was stunned.

"Mariano Rivera just said, 'Excuse me,' to me," Marco Chiappetta said. "This is Mariano Rivera standing in my house, and listen to him. It's like, 'I know who you are,' and he's worried about saying, 'Excuse me,' to someone like me."

But Chiappetta is more than just an inconsequential "someone." In a city that turns to baseball for its idols, Chiappetta and his wife are two people truly worth that kind of recognition. The Chiappettas are the founders of the Patchwork of Young Leaders Society -- a grassroots non-profit mentorship group to nurture leadership in children from underprivileged neighborhoods.

On Monday, the Yankees acknowledged and honored true heroism and gave a room of unsuspecting youngsters the thrill of a lifetime. Rivera, second baseman Robinson Cano, outfielder Melky Cabrera and manager Joe Girardi made an unannounced visit to the Chiappettas' apartment in Washington Heights, to kick off HOPE Week -- an initiative the Yankees have started in order to bring goodwill into the community that will continue until Friday.

The Yankees had lunch with the teenagers and distributed donated sporting equipment, but perhaps even more meaningfully, they spoke to the group and delivered whatever message they could muster.

As far as Rivera is concerned, though, nothing he could say could match what the Chiappettas do every day. That's why Marco had no reason to feel guilty for bumping Rivera. Rivera believes he is the one who owed the apology.

Even one of the greatest closers of all time can acknowledge what he considers actual greatness that may even surpass his own.

"To me, those are the real heroes, just because what they do is life," Rivera said. "All I do is a game. What they do is change people's lives. They're starting with the youth because that group of teenagers is going to be the future. To me, what Marco and his wife are doing for these young people, that is a more important step than what I do."

Marco Chiappetta began the Patchwork of Young Leaders Society in the summer of 2006 because he and his wife were saddened by the sight of local schoolyards that had been abandoned by children. So he visited the park outside P.S. 148 -- at 185th Street and Broadway -- on a regular basis, looking to play sports with whoever wanted to join.

"This was a schoolyard where kids went to try their first drugs, fight other rival gangs," Chiappetta said. "Then it became a safe haven."

Eventually, a lone child -- Jonathan Baraohna -- showed up, and they tossed an old football around. Chiappetta was so inspired that, despite having little financial security, he quit his job to devote all of his attention to a fledgling notion that had virtually no membership.

"I truly felt that I was put on this Earth to start Patchwork," Chiappetta said.

One day, Baraohna brought 15 other children to the park, and the group began to grow. Now, Patchwork is comprised of upward of 150 teenagers, and the Chiappettas open their door every night of the week to these kids, many of whom desperately needed stability in their lives.

On Monday, the kids expected just another day. Suddenly, the Yankees began filing in. Cano said their eyes lit up when they entered. Girardi said the only better part of the day was seeing the teens' looks of disbelief when they learned they were invited to Yankee Stadium for VIP treatment at the Yankees' game against the Orioles that night -- a 2-1 victory. Before the fifth inning, general manager Brian Cashman presented the Chiappettas with a $10,000 check to continue improving the organization.

"I was shocked," said 16-year-old Jaycee Checo of meeting the Yankees. "I couldn't believe it. I never thought in my wildest dreams I would ever meet one Yankee, let alone four."

The group talked about baseball, but also about life. Girardi delivered an impassioned speech about the importance of remaining humble and persevering through the toughest circumstances, citing examples from the lives of Yankees players.

Chiappetta led role-playing exercises with the players and kids, teaching them how to avoid violent confrontations and escape potentially dangerous situations. There was also time for plenty of questions.

"I'm very impressed," Girardi said. "You can see there's a gentleness here. When I look at the kids, there's a smile. There's no hardness to them. There's a softness to them, and there's a real willingness to put themselves out there to help other people."

But Rivera stole the show when, unprompted, he posed a question of his own. He wanted to find the first member of Patchwork and single him out. When Baraohna stepped forward, Rivera put him on the spot in front of everyone and asked what he personally has gotten from the Chiappettas over the years.

Baraohna never hesitated. He said Patchwork made him the leader that he is today, and that Marco is the father figure he was never fortunate enough to have. That was exactly what Rivera wanted to hear and unequivocally proved that the first day of HOPE (Helping Others Persevere and Excel) Week was a resounding success.

"The answer he gave was the right answer, when he said they were the parents he never had," Rivera said. "And my answer to that is to pass that along to the rest of the group. Pass it on, pass it on, pass it on. It's important to pass it on to the whole community."

Jared Diamond is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.