Bettis honors those who make a difference

They are three men who stand for what is right in the NFL, what is right in society, what is right in the world and that is why they were the three people Jerome Bettis found it easy to honor them at his 14th Annual Caring for Kids Gala.

Cam Heyward, Alejandro Villanueva and Charlie Batch personify what young athletes should strive for, men who do and have done things the right way both on and off the field.

Heyward is this year's Humanitarian Award winner, a well-deserved honor for someone who truly believes in giving back. He established the Heyward House Foundation in 2015, an organization that allows him to reach out to others in need, those who could use a helping hand. As part of the foundation he launched the Cameron Heyward Birthday Club through which he provides a birthday celebration for kids who otherwise might not have the opportunity to enjoy their special day.

Last year he launched 'Craig's Closet,' a program he is doing in conjunction with his foundation and Sports Clips to help provide suits, shirts, ties and the necessities to young men in the Pittsburgh area who don't have the means to attain proper attire for key occasions. Heyward said doing a project like this was something his late father had talked about, but he never was able to make it come to fruition. To be able to live out a dream his dad had is something that means the world to Heyward. Heyward is hoping to help as many young men in the Pittsburgh area as he can, and it doesn't all have to be about a job interview. If a suit is what they need for something special, he wants to help.

"To see Cam and his evolution. I saw him get drafted here. I saw him grow up here," said Bettis. "To see what he has done in the community. His commitment to the community is impressive. He has a commitment to Pittsburgh. Those are the people I want to acknowledge, to give a pat on the back and say we see what you are doing and we appreciate you giving back to Pittsburgh. Cam is a special guy with what he does for the city and beyond."

Heyward also has taken the Boy & Girls Club of Western Pennsylvania under his wing, has led an initiative with local police officers, working together to make an impact in and around Pittsburgh and does work for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. He is working with the UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh and UPMC Asthma Institute, something he battles himself, and wants to help children with severe asthma.

"The history behind Jerome, the type of person he is, I am humbled for him to think of me," said Heyward. "I look up to a guy like that, the way he did it on and off the field. You want to emulate a guy like that.

"I didn't get to play with Jerome, but hearing stories about him, talking to him off the field, I tried to pick his brain and better myself because of it."

Villanueva was presented with the courage award as a tribute to what he has been through in his life. Villanueva is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and a former U.S. Army Ranger who served three tours of duty in Afghanistan, and now does his job to protect the team's quarterbacks and blast holes through opposing defenses for running backs.

While his role has changed from his days as an Army Ranger, the respect his teammates have for him hasn't.

"Even before he played for us I had the ultimate respect for the military," said David DeCastro. "To have him, talk to him, and learn about his experience adds even more to that respect. It's great to have him on the team."

Villanueva grew up a military child, playing football at the American High School for the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE). Villanueva played football as a cadet at West Point and was commissioned in the United States Army in 2010. He was promoted to Captain in 2014, and was deployed three times as a Ranger. He received the Bronze Star Medal and the Bronze Star Medal for Valor for heroism in combat.

"I wanted to bring light to his extraordinary situation and what he went through and how he never wavered in his resolve," said Bettis. "I think that's something to be commended. We want to bring light to what he has had to go through and what his life is like. He needs to be honored and thanked for his service.

"To be able to go from the service, walk away from football, and then come back and play football at the highest level. Not just play, but be a starter and a really good player. That doesn't happen. To see that is an impressive accomplishment. I am looking forward to seeing more of what he can do."

Batch was presented with the Impact Award, an award that was just created this year because of individuals like Batch. He has dedicated so much time over the past 20 years giving back to the kids in the community where he grew up, and now he can serve even more as he is building a new facility for the Best of the Batch Foundation.

"There was a time when he wasn't even playing in Pittsburgh and he was doing stuff for the kids," said Bettis, who honored Batch with the humanitarian award at their first annual dinner. "Now he is taking it to another level. He is going from a two to a 10. Everyone appreciated what he did before, but he took it to another level. It's the impact award because he is making a tremendous impact in the community. He has gone above and beyond what we ask our sports figures to do. You ask them to give back, and he went beyond that to be a beacon of light for the kids."

For the past 20 years the foundation has operated out of a 5,000 square foot facility. Now they are building a 21,000 square foot state of the art educational facility that will open in the spring of 2020 and allow them to serve even more kids. The foundation is currently serving 3,800 kids from eight counties with plans to expand that number to 4,000 right off the bat. They have 1,100 walk through the doors every year, with others served through their programs.

The new facility, affectionately nicknamed "The Clubhouse," will allow the foundation to continue to help those who don't have access to a Boys & Girls Club or YMCA type of facility for after school programs. They will expand their mentoring, tutoring, computer lab, STEAM and behavioral programs, as well as find new ways to help local youth.

"To be honored is special and it's humbling," said Batch. "For Jerome to see where we have started to where we are now and what we are becoming with our new building. What we want to do is have an impact, leave a legacy. That is what this family wants to do and make sure the kids have options and the opportunities we hope we can continue to provide."

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