Thursday, May 8, 2014

Giving Back

Giving back is an act close to my heart. Sometimes it’s taught but often times it’s learned. I was fortunate to grow up in a giving family, although I'm not sure the idea of “fundraisers” was very big back in the 70s. As I matured, I realized just how blessed I was and knew I needed to return the favor. It's a value I hope to pass along to my children. While I'm not always able to give time and/or money, when I can, it is so rewarding. I don't attend church regularly, but I am spiritual and I fully believe in karma. And I had way too much good in my life not to give back with all my heart.

Following the ‘92 Olympic Games, I was approached by many charities and asked to attend their functions – golf tournaments, dinners and swim events all made the list. I was honored to take part in as many as I could while still being a student at Stanford University.  But as my time at school was drawing to a close, I felt this pull to give back in a real way. Not to just show up one time here and there, but to dedicate myself to something and being a true part of it. That’s when my phone rang and Johann Koss was on the other end. The organization at the time was Olympic Aid, and they wanted me to take a trip to Rwanda just months after the genocide. I didn't hesitate for a second. I said YES and never looked back. That trip and those kids – their resiliency, strength, and spirit – with their looks of pure joy playing sport stuck with me!

Over the next 18 years, I’ve stayed a part of the organization as it’s changed and grown. We became Right To Play, and we now have a presence in 23 countries, touching the lives of over 1 million children every week. The idea of using sport for development has became a powerful tool, largely in part due to the tremendous work of Johann. He’s won gold medals, broken world records, and met world leader, but those accolades pale in comparison to his efforts to bringing a smile to a child in a war-torn country and watching that child learn and grow with confidence through sport in our programs. 

I was fortunate enough to be back to NYC with my mom and daughter recently for the Big Red Ball, Right To Play’s largest fundraising event. The red ball is our symbol and the words written on it are the motto we hope to instill in every child that participated in our program: “Look after yourself, Look after one another.” Isn't that really what giving back is all about. So I was thrilled to finally bring my bright-eyed, positive and caring 8-year-old daughter with me to the event. She was so excited to dress up and meet everyone, and she was finally big enough to see and understand why I give up time with our family to be a part of the Right To Play family. 

I often tell this story about the kids in our programs. During that first trip to Rwanda, we spent time at an orphanage and I saw the purest form of selflessness and love. Many of the kids taking part in our games were disabled from the genocide. One girl in particular had lost both her legs from a landmine explosion, and they were amputated just above her knees. Her prosthetics were two pieces of wood with a peg end. She was balancing on two pegs for a relay race. It was an amazing site. What I quickly noticed and then became mesmerized by were her eyes. Huge, round and gorgeous brown eyes beneath closely shorn hair. She was strong and beautiful. The children were all incredibly tough; my emotions weren’t. Once I composed myself, I knew I couldn't shed any more tears. If these children were happy, I was happy and the day was for smiling. 

The relay race began with Johann and I looking on as cheering fans. The little girl was standing there in line waiting for her turn to race. She was focused and ready. The baton was passed to her, and I don't think I have ever seen a child happier than in that moment. She was hauling butt to the turn-around post and back. And I was just in awe. While not yet a mother, I understood what it meant to feel a child’s joy and want to be a part of giving them that feeling. Her face, that smile, and those eyes have stuck with me. It’s the joy of the heart I now see in my own children.

Pure happiness was what I witnessed that day, something those kids hadn't felt often. And there’s not a day that goes by that I don't feel honored to be a part of Right To Play, building a foundation of health, confidence, courage and knowledge through sport so that children can go on to be a positive influence in their communities. Yes, I have given time, energy and money, but what I continue to take away from each experience is so much more. And the lessons I get to teach my kids first hand are priceless.

Everyone has their own passion, their own calling, so find yours if you can. Choose your path and give back however you can to something that’s close to your heart in whatever way you’re comfortable participating. If you get the opportunity, teach the next generation the power they have for positive change. And please tell me all about it. I truly want to know.