HOPE Week honoree Ajello delivers first pitch

HOPE Week honoree Ajello delivers first pitch

HOPE Week honoree Ajello delivers first pitch
NEW YORK -- The Yankees gave Megan Ajello a wonderful surprise to begin her day on Thursday, and she helped return the favor by kicking off the team's afternoon on Saturday at Yankee Stadium.

Using her motorized wheelchair, the 17-year-old drove the ceremonial first pitch from the mound to home plate, drawing a cheer from the crowd as the baseball was delivered to Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli.

Ajello was honored on Thursday with a special visit by the team to her Staten Island lemonade stand as part of the Yankees' HOPE (Helping Others Persevere and Excel) Week.

She also helped first-base coach Mick Kelleher deliver the lineup card to the umpiring crew at home plate before Saturday's doubleheader, shaking hands with umpires Tim Welke, Mike Estabrook, Jim Reynolds and Mike DiMuro, before announcing, "Play ball," over the stadium's PA system.

Ajello suffers from cerebral palsy and scoliosis, fighting through six major surgeries, including a spinal fusion. Though bound to a wheelchair, Megan's disabilities have not prevented her from putting together a charity lemonade stand with her family every year since 2006.

"It's so easy to get caught up in the monotony and the urgency that we feel, but in reality, what's more important than this?" Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said on Thursday at Ajello's home. "People have real needs that are daily challenges. Not necessarily whether we get a trade done or whether we get our next hit or how we match up against an opposing team. This is real-life stuff."

This year, Ajello had hoped to raise $5,000 for Special Olympics; with the support of the Yankees' visit, Ajello was able to make an $11,000 donation to the charity.

The Yankees Foundation also donated an additional $5,000, as well as $5,000 to Ajello's school, the Seton Foundation for Learning in Grasmere, N.Y.

Yankees carpenters also constructed a new lemonade stand for Ajello, who received President Barack Obama's Volunteer Service Award in recognition of her efforts for charity.

"It gives her a sense of pride that she's able to do certain things herself and get all these people to come here that she knows and that are concerned for her," Megan's father, Daniel, said of the lemonade stand. "It's nice to see a lot of the people that you don't get to see as much, and kind of make them aware of what kids like Megan can motivate people to do."

Ajello's experiences were just one of five remarkable stories brought to light by HOPE Week, initiated in 2009 and rooted in the fundamental belief that acts of goodwill provide hope and encouragement to more than just the recipient of the gesture.