Like a lot of collectors, Tim Virgilio likes getting his mail. Often a former athlete has responded to his request and his mailbox contains autographed cards or other items. They’re not for his own personal collection, though. He’s doing it to help military members both past and present and their families.
The Georgia collector is the driving force behind Signatures for Soldiers, a fundraising effort aimed at helping a non-profit organization whose goal is to serve those who’ve served their country.
Since last fall, he has reached out to hundreds of athletes, asking if they’d agree to sign autographs for him through the mail in support of his efforts. If they do, the signatures are sold online with Virgilio turning the proceeds over to North Carolina-based Military Missions in Action, a registered 501(c)3 that supports disabled military veterans and disabled children of active duty military personnel by providing home repairs, remodeling and renovations at no cost to the recipients or their families.
MMIA also supports homeless veterans and deployed active duty military personnel with personal necessities and clothing.
“We’ve volunteered to help with projects, we’ve done fundraising for them, I’ve served on the Board of Directors, and now we serve on the Advisory Board,” Virgilio told Sports Collectors Daily. “When my job transferred us from North Carolina to Georgia, I wanted to continue to support MMIA in some way. That is when I decided to start my efforts to use my hobby of autograph collecting to raise some money for MMIA.”
Over the past seven months, he’s received a positive response from about 200 players and coaches and raised over $3,500 by selling those autographs online. Most are less than $10. Proceeds from every purchase go directly to the non-profit group.
“Once I’ve reached out to a player to explain what I am doing and they agree to sign items for me, I ask them for an address that they prefer that I send the items to,” he explained. “ I don’t share these addresses with anyone, as this is a promise that I make to each player. I will then collect up the items and package them along with information about MMIA and Signatures For Soldiers, as well as appropriate return postage and packaging. I even include a Sharpie for them to use. Once the player receives everything they sign the items and then return them to me. Pretty much the same routine as if I were sending through the mail requests. The big difference here is that I’m gaining their approval to send items first and they are looking out for them to arrive through the mail.”
Former relief ace and World Series champion Rob Dibble was among those who shared a photo of himself signing the items. Some players have been generous enough to include extra items of their own for Virgilio to use in his fundraising efforts. One the autographs arrive, he then lists the cards and other items that have been signed along with a suggested donation price per item on the Signatures for Soldiers Facebook page.
“I’m also a member of SportsCollectors.Net and have a running thread there that I list everything,” he stated. “This has also been a great way to reach collectors and help them fill in their collections while raising money for MMIA. I haven’t started selling anything through eBay yet but may do that in the future. I’ve also just recently started a website but still have a lot of players and cards to load onto that site so it is a work in progress.”
Many players, no doubt glad to be remembered after a few years out of the big leagues or just happy to help military families, have responded positively and quickly, but not all. Some don’t want to participate while others say they keep their efforts focused on their own charities. However, that has been the exception and not the norm.
“My experience is that some players are very responsive and willing to help. Some players ask a few more questions and want some more information, which I am always happy to provide. Two players who have been so very supportive from the very beginning have been Chris Hammond and Barry Lyons. It is because of these two that I realized that I could actually raise some significant money for MMIA. Another player who has been great about his support is Jim Leyritz. Mr. Leyritz and I have spoken several times on the phone about what I am doing and he has been willing to sign items to help support my efforts.”
Some athletes he writes to have personal reasons for supporting a patriotic endeavor.
“Alvaro Espinoza is another player who has been great with his support,” Virgilio stated. “His wife recently became a US citizen and he takes his citizenship as an American very serious. He is another player that continues to support my efforts anytime that he can. I’ve had other players who have been great to deal with and have been lucky enough to speak with personally, including Herm Winningham, Chris Hammond, and Jay Johnstone, who served in the Marine Reserves.
“I’ve also had players who have sent their own items to support my efforts. Some of these players include Woody Williams, Dave Magadan, Dean Palmer, Todd Walker, Joe Vitiello, Ozzie Timmons, Bill Sampen, Darrell Rasner, Cla Meredith, Jack McDowell, Jim Abbott, Noah Lowry, Corey Koskie, Rob Ducey, Frank Catalanotto, and Benny Ayala. I’ve even had players who have found out about my efforts through other people who have contacted me directly to know how they can help support my efforts.”
Virgilio says there have been some humorous exchanges, too. One player who was very skeptical at first was former New York Mets pitcher Jeff Innis. “When I approached him about helping out, he very politely told me that although he supports veterans and the military he didn’t appreciate being solicited for money. I apologized to him if I had given him that impression and stated that I was simply asking if he would sign some cards that I could sell to raise money for MMIA. His response to that made me laugh, literally. He said, ‘Oh is that all you want? Sure. I’d be happy to help’. Ever since then, he has been one of my biggest supporters.”
While Signatures for Soldiers may be new, the amount of money raised in his first few months has made an impact. Virgilio set an initial goal of $3,000 because that figure represents the average cost of materials to build a wheelchair ramp for a disabled veteran.
“MMIA is currently in the process of building a home for a disabled Iraq War Marine veteran,” he explained. “The lot was donated to MMIA but MMIA has been responsible for building the home from the foundation up. This has been the largest project that MMIA has taken on and they hope to be completed and have the family move in this summer. Because of the scale of this project, most of the money that has been raised has gone to this American Heroes Home Build. It will be great to see this Marine and his family be able to live in a home that has been specifically built to meet his needs and allow for him to live more independently in his own home.”
So far, Virgilio says MMIA has provided over $3.5 million worth of services since being founded in January 2008.
Volunteers help MMIA with its work of serving veterans and their families, helping keep costs down for a relatively small organization.
“Because I have seen firsthand the impact that MMIA has on the lives of these veterans and their families and because of their fiscal responsibility in managing the money that they receive through donations and grants, I’ve become a very big advocate for MMIA,” Virgilio said. “The national average for a non-profit to spend on administrative costs is between 20-25% of its budget. MMIA annually has administrative costs that are under 10%.”
It was a meeting with MMIA’s Executive Director, Michael Dorman, in 2007 that originally drew Virgilio into volunteering for the group, long before Signatures for Soldiers was launched. Dorman says those grass-roots kind of commitments are vital to making sure the needs of military families are met.
“I think what Tim has done by combining his passion for baseball and veterans has yielded amazing results,” Dorman declared. “His passions have changed the lives of veterans with disabilities, members of the Armed Forces, and their families. With support from individuals like Tim we could not accomplish our mission.”
Virgilio is hoping as word of his mission spreads, more collectors will buy some of those autographs and help him donate again soon.
“This whole experience has been wonderful. Not only am I helping to support a cause that I believe in, but I’ve been able to get to know some of these players on a little more of a personal level. It has been great for me, as a fan, to find out that not only are these players who I admired their talent but that they are even better human beings than I could have hoped for. I incur the costs for all of the postage and other items. It is my way to give back and support MMIA.”