Devout Christian MLB star and philanthropist Albert Pujols made his first trip to Israel last week to see the Holy Land's religious sites and also spent time visiting Israeli children with special needs.
Pujols, a 36-year-old Dominican who plays for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and ranks ninth all-time with 591 career home runs, has a passion for helping children with special needs. Pujols, whose 18-year-old daughter, Isabella, has Down syndrome, has been a major advocate for people with special needs for over a decade.
Pujols and his wife, Deidre, even founded the Pujols Family Foundation in 2005 to "honor God" by helping those living with Down syndrome and by improving "the lives of the impoverished in the Dominican Republic."
As the Pujols Family Foundation is responsible for organizing a wealth activities for children with Down syndrome in five cities across the United States, Pujols and Deidre felt it was important for them to take time out of their trip to Jerusalem to visit with children and teens who have special needs at Shalva National Children's Center on Nov. 20.
Shalva, the Israel Association for the Care and Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities, is globally acclaimed for its care and outreach to thousands of Israeli families that have children with special needs, including those with Down syndrome, and just recently opened up a new $55 million state-of-the-art facility.
Shalva, which is non-denominational, offers a wide variety of programs for special needs children — such as vocational training, community sports and mentorship programs. The Shalva programs are offered to all children with special needs until they reach the age of 21. Additionally, Shalva is able to offer the programs free of charge.
"I feel blessed that through my own life experience with my daughter, she has taught me to give back to people with disabilities so that they can develop their full potential in life and give back to society," Pujols said in a statement. "I'm grateful for the opportunity to visit Shalva and to see what is done in Israel to assist youngsters with disabilities and was impressed with their unique facilities, which don't exist anywhere else."
Pujols was given a tour of the new facility by Shalva's director, Avi Samuels.
"We were privileged to host Albert and Deidre Pujols, who do so much all over the world for people with disabilities," Samuels said in a statement. "Albert maintained that this was not a one-time visit to Shalva, but rather the beginning of a long term friendship, where we will work together to do great things for special needs people of all ages in the near future."
Not only did Pujols take a tour of the facility but he was also able to throw batting practice to lucky special needs teens, who were given the opportunity to show the future baseball hall-of-famer their own baseball swings.
Back in the U.S., the Pujols Family Foundation hosts many events specifically targeted toward children who have Down syndrome.
The foundation recently hosted a 10-week group program in Missouri called "Rhythm of Life Music Therapy," which is designed to "promote creative expression and social interaction through music within the Down syndrome community."
On Nov. 11, the foundation hosted an "Autumn Prom" at the Saddleback Church in Anaheim, California, which was a formal prom for teens who have Down syndrome. The foundation also held another "Autumn Prom" in St. Louis, Missouri, on Oct. 28.
Additionally, the foundation offers frequent cooking classes, basketball clinics and other programs for youth with Down syndrome.
In 2009, Pujols, who previously played for the St. Louis Cardinals, gave $70,000 to St. Luke's Hospital in Chesterfield, Missouri, to launch the Albert Pujols Wellness Center for Adults with Down Syndrome, which is dedicated to helping Down syndrome patients 17 years old and older and is the first of its kind in the St. Louis area.