Michael Phelps: Gold medals and golden heart

I have always been impressed with professional athletes who go out of their way to give back to the community. It's one thing to have a charitable foundation, but it's special when the athletes are out in the community in person, especially with events and causes that benefit children.

On the Orioles first off day of the season I spent the evening at the Harford County Boys & Girls club annual fund raising dinner. My wife Bonnie and I were invited to attend and I was asked to emcee the program.

The highlight of the evening for the kids was the guest of honor, Olympic Champion Michael Phelps. Phelps, through the michaelphelpsfoundation.org helps children in a variety of ways, but his appearance showed a commitment to personally being involved.

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Phelps and his foundation donated $30,000 to the boys & girls club. But his talk to the kids was what was impressive to me. He encouraged them to dream. He told them how at age 11 he decided he wanted to be an Olympic swimmer and through hard work and talent was an Olympian 4 years later. He told them about setting goals and to aspire for a better life. He reminded them there are no shortcuts and how every decision has consequences.

Children are impressionable. They react to positive experiences. Phelps gave them a night to remember, including staying long after the program concluded to sign autographs and pose for pictures. He was there for them, and now they have another role model, a famous person they may have heard of but now have seen and interacted with.

I had met Phelps a few times before but this was the first time I was able to spend time with him at an event. He couldn't have been nicer to the program's organizers and was accommodating to whatever was asked of him to make the event the best it could be.

The Harford County Boys & Girls Club does outstanding work. Their facilities are used by thousands of children every day. It gives them a place to go for a positive experience surrounded by people who care. And often that makes the difference in a choice a young person might make.

Michael Phelps is a Baltimore icon. He's one of the most famous athletes in the world. But he knows where he came from and still lives and trains here. And for several hours on a Thursday night in April he showed not only how much he cares but how much a celebrity can make a difference.

The Orioles do outstanding work in the community through Orioles Reach. Nick Markakis and Brian Roberts, through their foundations, are visible in the public and go beyond just financial support. And almost every Orioles player in some way helps in the Baltimore community throughout the year.

It's been a tough start to the 2010 season on the field. For one night it was nice to be reminded how important and rewarding it is to give back. Michael Phelps was the star and the focus. But the kids of Harford County were the winners.

For more information on the Boys & Girls Club of Harford County visit www.bgcharfordco.org.