By Leslie Barker | Photos by Kim Leeson~
Don Wakamatsu used to live for baseball.
The game has been his career, his livelihood, his passion. He’s played it, he’s scouted for it, he’s managed teams, and he’s coached them — which he still does, right now, as bench coach for the Texas Rangers.
But something changed four years ago. One morning, Don awoke with a realization.
“I wanted to make a bigger imprint on life outside the game of baseball,” Don said.
He followed this thought and formed the WakWay Foundation, a nonprofit working to act as “a conduit of change through social entrepreneurship and giving.”
Already, it has more than lived up to that. Together with business partner Michelle Truman, Don and WakWay have donated coats and backpacks to children in need, as well as hundreds of thousands of pounds of food to impoverished food deserts.
And, perhaps nearest and dearest to Don’s heart, WakWay has reached out with lifelines of hope and possibility.
Initially, WakWay’s mission was simply to raise money and donate food and necessities at events around the country. Don enlisted volunteers from teams with whom he’d been associated. He played for the Chicago White Sox, managed the Seattle Mariners, and held coaching positions in Oakland, Toronto, New York, Kansas City, and, of course, Texas.
Everyone was willing to pitch in. With all this help, WakWay has supported communities and organizations in need all over the country, serving hundreds of meals to inner-city kids, giving away more than 280,000 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables, donating truckloads of brisket and chicken to families in need, and even providing 4,000 jars of peanut butter and jelly — we’ll elaborate on the jelly momentarily — to seniors.
Yet as important as feeding and clothing people is and always will be to the foundation, Don wanted WakWay’s roots to run deeper. He quoted the famous adage from philosopher Lau Tzu: “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll fish for a lifetime.”
“The first year of the foundation, we gave away a lot of stuff,” Don said. “Well, that was for a day. Is that what we want to be? Or do we want a more-lasting impact?”
Don wanted to have a more-lasting impact. To do that, he turned his family farm in Oregon into a nonprofit research facility for food science.
Now, the farm is working on product development and job creation, and even setting up internships and partnerships with universities. His goal is to have students run their own division of the farm and — potentially — create their vocations.
Don said his model for the WakWay was the Newman’s Own Foundation, created by the late actor Paul Newman.
Newman developed his recipe for salad dressing in a basement with a friend. When they began passing the dressing around, people told Newman he should sell it. But Newman said he didn’t need the money. Instead, he began the Newman’s Own Foundation, which donates 100% of its profits.
By the time of Newman’s death in 2008, the Newman’s Own Foundation had raised $500 million for charity.
This is what Don wanted for WakWay.
“I was clamoring to have a product line that feeds the foundation rather than me having my hand out asking for money for the foundation,” Don said.
Which is where the jelly comes in. Even better, it ties directly into the farm.
Both sets of Don’s grandparents — Japanese, on his father’s side; Irish, on his mother’s — owned farms and grew fruit in Oregon.
“A few years ago, we had a three-acre block of Rainier cherries go to waste,” Don said. “I asked my mother, ‘What are we going to do with them?’”
“Nothing,” she said to him.
“These are cherries you would die for,” Don said, “and they had nowhere to go because we didn’t have the resources to market and sell them.”
That got him to thinking about how much food goes to waste. He wondered if there was a way to sustain the fruit.
“We started looking at jams,” Don said. “I was talking to a friend of mine and saying I’d love to start producing jams through our foundation as a way to give back. She suggested we connect with seniors.”
That led to the peanut butter and jelly giveaway to seniors, in partnership with Denton’s Meals on Wheels program.
“They need protein,” Don said, “and most were involved with and have memories of jams as kids.”
After some internet research on jam makers, Don found Donna Collins with The Jelly Queens. (fyi50+ wrote about her in the September/October 2019 issue)
“I called her at eight that night and left a message,” he said. “She called me back at 9:30. We hit it off right away. I told her what we were doing, and she said she’d love to get involved.”
Don continued: “I said, ‘Let’s see if we can get players involved.’”
He asked, and the Rangers’ response was phenomenal.
Second baseman Nick Solak said yes, as did pitcher Taylor Hearn, catcher Jose Trevino, and outfielders Willie Calhoun, Joey Gallo, and Shin-Soo Choo.
Donna asked the players to pick their favorite fruit flavor, then she worked with them to turn each into jam. The jams, sold here under the WakWay label, include “Solak’s Rounding the Bases Raspberry Jam,” “Calhoun’s Wild Willie Berry Jam,” and “Hearn’s Manganero Spice Jam.”
In this and the next nine issues of fyi50+, each jam will be a major ingredient in mouthwatering, world class chef-created recipes.
“You have to be able to keep the momentum going,” Don said, “and so this jam program is much deeper. We have access to fruits and vegetables that are being thrown away. We are raising money to open small commercial kitchens, trying to create startups in low income areas.”
There’s more, of course: drone farming, indoor vertical farming, a tree adoption program. Don joked he has enough work for two lifetimes, though he’s really quite serious.
But whether he’s talking baseball or jam or the WakWay Foundation, Don doesn’t consider any of it as a chore. Everything he does is woven together, and woven together with joy.
“WakWay has done amazing things, but we have to continue to work,” he said. “How we do that is by getting support through the community and giving back; to have people go to our website, donate, purchase jams, and help support our programming to make a difference.”
Don continued: “It’s about spreading the love.”
See Don’s “Peachy Good Waffle Sandwich” recipe HERE.