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Detroit — One way of coping with tragedy and grief is to help somebody else, create a moment of joy for somebody.

Few know that better than Tigers pitcher Anibal Sanchez. Back in 2007, he sat in a room by himself trying to understand why his three-month-old son Alan had suddenly died.

"I was in a city without any family," he said. "I just come through that storm by myself. I was thinking a lot. I was crying a lot. I say, God, I need help to handle this situation. It is really hard when you see your kid pass away and I wanted to do something."

That experience, plus some worrisome moments before the birth of daughter Anabella three years ago, was impetus for Sanchez's Little Smiles, a charity initiative that Anibal and his wife Ana officially launched before the game Wednesday.

The Sanchez's will invite 19 people, families who are challenged with the care of children with health concerns or other adversities, to attend games throughout the season. They will be on the field for batting practice and watch the game from a fully catered suite.

The first group, from Children's Hospital of Michigan's craniofacial unit, attended the game Wednesday.

"It's an opportunity for the families to get away from the stressful life that they are going through with the care of their kids," said Ana Sanchez, who started a similar program in Miami. "We are very excited. We've been doing a lot of work behind closed doors, but we want to get this out there for others to get involved. It doesn't need to be with money, but if you have an opportunity to provide a smile, why not do it."

Sanchez lost his son before he met Ana.

"My first kid, he was born healthy," he said. "He was a strong kid. Everything was normal for three months. He was born here (in Miami) but we went back to Venezuela and he got sick."

Alan was infected with the dengue virus, which is similar to malaria, by a mosquito bite.

"He passed away on Christmas Day," Sanchez said. "At that point, I understand that God found me. I need to be involved with people who need any kind of help. No matter what, just talking to them, economic help or just a hug.

"At that point, when you would see a lot of kids laughing and you are crying at that moment — it's tough. That's why I want to be involved."

The Sanchezes now have a healthy, happy 21/2-year-old two daughter. But before Anabella was born, she was diagnosed with a cleft palate and cleft lip. Their experience through that also provided impetus to get involved with helping the families of sick and needy children.

"Once we had Anabella, we needed to support and in some way create awareness to kids who have some sort of need and to support the parents," Ana said.

Participating families will be selected in partnership with local charity organizations. Dates will be selected throughout the season.

Sanchez's Little Smiles works in cooperation with Children's Hospital of Michigan Foundation, Coalition on Temporary Shelter (COTS), Ronald McDonald House of Detroit and Variety — the Children's Charity.

"We are both very excited," Ana said. "Detroit is now home for us. To give back something relative to what we went through, we do care. And we want other people to be aware and care as much as we do."

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/cmccosky

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