Christian Yelich's hometown of Thousand Oaks, California, faced a mass shooting and two wildfires in 2018

By Sean Neumann
January 12, 2020 11:30 AM
Credit: Rich Polk/Getty

Christian Yelich keeps his hometown of Thousand Oaks, California, close to his heart.

The city faced back-to-back disasters in November 2018 when a mass shooter killed 12 people at the local Borderline Bar and Grill. Then a pair of deadly wildfires raged through the area less than 24 hours later. The tragic 24-hour stretch shook the town and left Yelich, a former resident, scrambling to help.

“I was born and raised out here and I don’t think anybody had ever really experienced anything like that, especially not in such close proximity to each other,” Yelich recently told PEOPLE. “I think it was maybe a 24-hour period, if that, between the shooting and the fires. We just felt the need to give back.”

Yelich quickly started a group text with fellow MLB players and California natives Ryan Braun and Mike Moustakas to talk about how they could help. The current and former Milwaukee Brewers players listed off ideas for how to raise money, Yelich remembers, until they soon landed on hosting a softball game.

The idea for the celebrity softball game quickly took off, gathering participants including Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, actors Jamie Foxx and Adam Sandler, as well as musicians Brad Paisley and Robin Thicke. Then it became “California Strong,” a charity “committed to providing immediate financial support to victims after disasters and tragedies strike in California” that the athletes founded in partnership with the local Southeast Ventura County YMCA.

Yelich will gather everyone for the second annual celebrity softball event on Sunday at Pepperdine University. Yelich, Braun and Moustakas will all be in attendance (though Yelich, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in September, won’t be playing), as well as celebrities like Sandler, Foxx, Rob Lowe, Rob McElhenney and Kaitlyn Olson, Charlie Sheen, Skeet Ulrich, Chris Harrison, Amanda Cerny, Anthony Anderson and more.

Celebrity players, including Yelich (second from the left), posing for a team photo at last year’s “California Strong” event.
| Credit: Rich Polk/Getty

Last year’s first annual event helped raise over $1 million and the new California Strong organization continued to raise more money throughout the year, having donated money directly to over 650 families.

The money the California Strong group raises goes directly to the families impacted by last year’s shooting and the wildfires, Yelich said. But importantly, it’s a gesture that tells Yelich’s hometown that the community hasn’t been forgotten.

“It just goes to show that people care even a year later,” Yelich told PEOPLE. “That’s the biggest thing, I think, when you see these disasters: Once they fade from the news, sometimes the victims of it are forgotten and they’re still left dealing with the problems years and years later. This is our way of letting them know that we haven’t forgotten about them and people do still care.”

Christian Yelich, who was raised in Thousand Oaks, California, won the 2018 National League MVP Award with the Milwaukee Brewers.
| Credit: Dylan Buell/Getty

Beyond the softball game, Yelich’s California Strong foundation has continued to raise money in other creative ways. Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff — another Thousand Oaks native — pledged to donate $1,000 to the organization for every touchdown he threw during the 2019 season. The former Super Bowl quarterback threw 22 in the Rams’ 2019 campaign, raising $22,000.

But it’s beyond just writing a check for the athletes who grew up in and around Thousand Oaks, Yelich said. Events like Sunday’s annual softball game give the community an opportunity to come together and its former townspeople, like Yelich and Goff, a chance to return home for a good cause.

“It’s been good to see the process through,” Yelich said. “A lot of times you raise funds and then you step away. You don’t really see exactly where it’s going to or to the people that this is all for. For us to be out there and to meet some of the families that have gone through this, it made the process all worth it.”

Yelich also noted that it’s a small step in piecing the community back together after the tragic events that took place in 2018.

“We know it’s not going to fully repair their lives or get them back to where they were pre-disaster, but it’s just a gesture to show that you care,” he said. “We grew up in these communities. They raised us. When they’re in a time of need, you feel obligated to give back and do more so than just write a check and step away. We wanted to be involved and we wanted to see it through. We wanted to be on the ground and interact, talk to people, get to know them and know their story. I think we found that it’s a lot more worthwhile than writing a check and stepping away.”