Caraviello: Foundation efforts help Gordon make a difference
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A certain four-time NASCAR champion bounds onto the stage wearing a suit with an open collar, a microphone in one hand, a set of note cards in the other. "Hello, I'm Jeff Gordon," he tells the crowd of about 100 people assembled in this downtown hotel ballroom, but introductions are unnecessary. Everyone knows who he is, and why he's here. The subject isn't auto racing, but about his other passion -- working to cure childhood cancer.
"Research and development is a big part of how we make our cars go faster," he tells the assemblage of donors and potential donors at this luncheon hosted by the Jeff Gordon Children's Foundation. "But absolutely, this is life or death."
He works the crowd with ease, showing that degree of comfort under the lights that's earned him guest-hosting spots on daytime talk shows. He introduces a panel of guests that includes physicians and researchers and a mother who lost a child and became an activist. He rattles off statistics and urges participation. Most top drivers have charitable foundations, and many are very active in them, and they all do good things. But Gordon, it becomes clear during one afternoon, takes things to another level. To him this isn't a hobby, but a passion almost up there with driving the car.
"It's amazing how he's grown it, but it's also amazing how he makes it part of his life or part of his job," said Ray Evernham, the former crew chief who won three championships with Gordon. "It's like no big deal to him. He's given I don't know how many tens of millions and done a lot of these things, and to him, it's no big deal. I admire him, because there are so many people who talk the talk, but they don't walk the walk. And this is a guy that does it. Instead of being out there preaching about doing the right thing, he does it."
Since its founding in 1999, Gordon's foundation has donated millions to a variety of projects inside the United States and out. Establishing a clinic at the Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis, opening a children's hospital in Concord, N.C., advocating the National Marrow Donor Program, implementing numerous fundraising initiatives, helping to bring a comprehensive cancer center to the African nation of Rwanda -- the foundation has grown and adapted throughout time, but the mission has remained the same. It all began well before Gordon had children of his own, the driver spurred by thoughts of what his life might have been like had he fallen ill at a young age.
"I tried to put myself in their position," said Gordon, recipient of this year's Heisman Humanitarian Award for his foundation work. "I just felt like I was so fortunate as a kid to get introduced to racing, and for things to happen the way that they did for me, and had I not had my health to be able to do that, I don't think I would have been able to live out that dream. I'm not saying kids can't live out their dreams dealing with an illness. I think that if they get sick, and you help them, or support a group that had a cure for it ... it's like it was sort of a blip in their life. It wasn't something that overwhelmed them and stayed with them forever."
Gordon now is a proud father to two healthy children, 5-year-old Ella and 2-year-old Leo. Well before he became a dad, he encountered kids with cancer during Make-A-Wish appearances and hospital visits, and they left an impression on him. And then there was Evernham's son, Ray J, who was diagnosed with leukemia one week after his first birthday, at a time when driver and crew chief were in the early stages of building what would become a powerhouse No. 24 team. "That was my first real interaction with someone personally dealing with that," Gordon said. He would attend Ray J's birthday parties and send him Christmas gifts, and Evernham said his son's illness hit Gordon hard.
"Jeff's always been a pretty sensitive person behind the scenes," said Evernham, whose son now is 21 and cancer-free. "He's done small things sometimes that are big things for people. He's just done a lot of nice things for people that have either been in need, or needed a few minutes or a little inspiration. And seeing some of those things we went through with Ray J and some of the kids that we tried to help early, I just think as he's grown up with it, and he's become bigger and bigger in the sport, that's never left him. He's been able to grow his charitable vision as much as he's grown his career. And I admire him for that, I really do."
It all led Gordon in one direction. When he began his own charitable efforts, he wanted them to be tightly focused, in the hopes of making the largest impact possible. "My biggest thing was, I wanted to make a difference, not just have a foundation to have a foundation," he said. The world of pediatric cancer is not an easy one to delve into, given the emotional weight often involved. The successes can be small, and found at an individual level. But Gordon's foundation funds efforts from research and development to improving the quality of hospital stays, and it's not difficult for him to see the areas where he's making a difference.
"You'll see the worried look on a parent's face. You'll see a child when it's all new to them, maybe it's their first day there and they're pulling back," Gordon said. "Yet you also see these kids like we have at our bowling tournament who have gone through the process and are now in the next stage of their lives, as healthy as you can ask for. So it pulls at you, but it's all about balance. It's the success stories that keep you wanting to do more, and give you hope that what you're doing is making a difference. But if they're all successful, then you think, oh, we can move on. And you can't move on, because there are still things that need to be done, and lives that are still being lost."
And not just in the United States. A trip with the Clinton Global Initiative to the Congo opened Gordon's eyes to needs in Africa, where cancer treatment is decidedly more primitive. Through a contact with sponsor Pepsi the driver was put in touch with a group working in Rwanda, and last year Gordon's foundation committed $1.5 million to build a cancer center at a hospital in Butaro. "Over there, for so much less funding, you see the impact," he said. "You see something that didn't exist before you came into it, and now it exists. Not that it wouldn't have existed without you, but you did that. The people, it's that one-on-one thank you, it's this person's life has been saved because of what you did."
* Caraviello: Gordon's philanthropy takes him to the Congo
Even modern care, though, has its limitations, and not all areas of Rwanda have the advantages of Butaro. Gordon last visited Rwanda during the off week prior to this year's race at Indianapolis, when the hospital admitted a stricken 10-year-old boy who had arrived there too late. "This boy was in a lot of pain," Gordon said. "Luckily, he did find that hospital, because they were able to give him morphine. The other hospital he was at, they were giving him Tylenol. That's the reason why we're there, to give that kind of care and do it for free. That doesn't happen in most hospitals in eastern Africa."
Gordon's initiatives continue in the United States, as well. He's enthused about a program called Kick-It that raises money -- more than $1.1 million so far -- for cancer research through kickball games. Demand for the foundation's attention is high, and although Gordon has a staff to manage it, through the years his philanthropic efforts have taken up larger chunks of his time. He'll probably always be involved with racing, somehow, even after he steps out of the car. Retirement is a term in which he doesn't really believe. But at 41 and closer to the end of his competitive career than the beginning, it's easy to envision a scenario where his passion to cure children's cancer only grows with time.
After all, as he tells luncheon invitees that day in the hotel ballroom, 40,000 children are battling the disease in the United States alone. In this race, the finish line remains far in the distance. "I can't wait to spend more time doing it, and getting more involved in it, and having more time to do that," Gordon said. "Because I think we can do even more, and I think we will."
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.