HOPE Week brings 'Freedom' from barriers

HOPE Week brings 'Freedom' from barriers

HOPE Week brings 'Freedom' from barriers
Imagine relying on a wheelchair to navigate your environment, living in a world customized in most communities to fit the needs of everyone else, a world where looking up a flight of stairs might seem like looking up a mountain.

"It's difficult, because a stair is a barrier for a person like me," said Jennifer Doherty, 38, who was born with cerebral palsy and is a resident of Project Freedom's Lawrenceville Township location.

Project Freedom is a non-profit organization that provides barrier-free housing, which enables individuals with disabilities to live independently.

As part of the New York Yankees HOPE week initiative (Helping Others Persevere and Excel), players and personnel from the Double-A affiliate Trenton Thunder visited residents and staff in Lawrenceville, N.J.

Project Freedom co-founder Norman Smith and executive director Tim Doherty -- Jennifer Doherty's father -- will be honored for their service to the community before Friday night's Thunder game.

"Project Freedom is freedom for people with disabilities," said Jennifer Doherty.

Doherty is able to live alone because her apartment has amenities like lowered countertops, accessible cabinets and roll-in showers, although she sometimes utilizes aides from outside agencies for anything she can't do on her own.

That independence is exactly why Smith co-founded the organization in 1984, along with his friend Frieda Applegate. Smith also uses a wheelchair because of cerebral palsy that affects his speech and motor skills. He responded to MLB.com's interview questions via email.

"Project Freedom started in my bedroom," Smith wrote. "I returned from graduating from Long Island University to my elderly parents' home facing a life of depending on parents. My options in the '80s were going into a nursing home, where I couldn't go to work, or to a group home."

Project Freedom may have started as a way for Smith to find his own housing, but it has turned into something much bigger. Now, Project Freedom has five locations and 250 units.

Being a part of something big is nothing new to 24-year-old Thunder catcher Jeff Farnham.

"Being a part of the Yankee organization, you definitely represent something much bigger than yourself," Farnham said. "So it's always great when you get a chance to give back to the community."

The Yankees began HOPE Week in 2009 to emphasize that everyone can give back no matter what financial situation they may be in. This is the first season that all five of the Yankees' Minor League teams are participating. The Yankees will begin their own HOPE week events on Monday.

As Farnham stood and fielded questions from residents, not even a loose-fitting Yankees HOPE week T-shirt could hide his chiseled physique. The young catcher even seemed to pique the interest of one resident in particular.

Timika Cheek, 35, has lived in Project Freedom's Robbinsville, N.J., location for 13 years. A bus brought her and other residents to the Lawrenceville event.

Cheek uses a wheelchair because of cerebral palsy she developed after being deprived of oxygen for an extended period after choking at six months old.

"Are you single?" Cheek asked Farnham to a boisterous ovation.

Farnham deflected the offering, but smiled with an ear-to-ear grin.

For Cheek and many others, Project Freedom represents independence and a place to call home. Some residents even said they hope being recognized by the Yankees will give the general public a better understanding of who they are and what they face every day.

"All I want people to know is we are human beings too," Cheek said. "We need love. All we want is respect."

Aaron Carter is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.