According to the Kiwanis International Web site, Kiwanis clubs are meant to be global organizations of volunteers dedicated to changing the world one child and one community at a time.
The Gainesville chapter of the Kiwanis club bestowed its highest honor Tuesday night to a man who has done that very thing — former Atlanta Braves pitcher and current Flowery Branch resident Phil Niekro.
The Youth Service Award is given annually to a person in the community who has rendered dedicated and outstanding service to the youth of Hall County.
Niekro, a Hall of Famer known as "Knucksie" for his trademark knuckleball pitch, was kept in the dark about being the recipient of the award and was surprised by Tuesday’s ceremony at the Chattahoochee Country Club.
"I knew we (The Edmondson-Telford Center for Children) were getting a check," Niekro said. "When I saw the pictures of my mother and father (in a slide show), I knew something else was up."
Since his retirement from Major League Baseball in 1987, Niekro has been heavily involved with the Edmondson-Telford Center for Children, an organization that provides services to Hall County residents under the age of 18 who are victims of sexual or severe physical abuse or neglect.
"We look for someone who has significantly impacted the youth and done so beyond the scope of whatever their career is," said Ellen DeFoor, 2007 Gainesville Kiwanis Club chairwoman. "The selection process is quite competitive and we have a lot of good candidates. But (Phil Niekro) has done it all under the radar and doesn’t want or expect to get personal recognition.
"Most people don’t know what he’s done to raise funds or awareness."
Niekro is the "honorary chairman" of the fundraising effort to build a sports complex, called "Field of Dreams," for physically challenged children.
When the project is completed, the children will have the opportunity to play baseball on a rubberized surface that will cover the entire field and, according to Niekro, "allow them to eat pizza and have drinks after the game like all other kids."
"What (Phil Niekro) did for children in his playing days has carried over into and continues today," said Sen. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville. "We are very proud to have him living in Hall County."
Hawkins, along with state Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, presented a proclamation in Niekro’s honor after the five-time Major League all-star accepted his service award.
The Edmondson-Telford Center for Children, where Niekro serves as a board member, was also presented a $1,000 check on behalf of the Gainesville Kiwanis Club.
Niekro’s annual charity golf tournament, which benefits the center, has, to date, raised in excess of $650,000. Since the center’s inception in 1997, more than 1,200 children and families have benefited from its free-of-charge services, which include forensic examinations and interviews with sexually abused victims, child abuse investigations and close-contact work with local law enforcement agencies and social services.
Niekro is also working to help fund construction of a new facility to house the Hall-Dawson County Court Appointed Special Advocates.
"Life’s been good to me to come from a family where there was love and understanding," Niekro said. "It isn’t just one person. Don’t take life for granted, and help when you can. There are so many in need and so many charities. Help when you can."