Leading the Fight Against Autism
Image by Tom Wolfe
Doug Flutie, star quarterback for the San Diego Chargers, has taken the authority and competitive drive that he displays on the field and used them in a very personal fight. Five years ago, Flutie, 38, and his wife, Laurie -- parents to Alexa, now 12, and Doug Jr., 8 -- found out that their young son had autism, a neurological disorder that affects a child's ability to communicate and reason. Instead of keeping their anguish to themselves, the Fluties established the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism.
The foundation offers financial and emotional support to families affected by autism, funds research and education, and provides a clearinghouse for information. "Starting the foundation was a way of giving Dougie a legacy of his own," explains Flutie, "and it's his way of making a contribution to society."
Fans admire Flutie's devotion and his positive attitude. "We take things one day at a time with Dougie," the football player says. "We treat him like we treat our daughter -- like a normal child."
For more information, go to www.dougflutiejrfoundation.org.
Remembering His Urban Roots
Sure, film and recording star Will Smith lives the glamorous Hollywood life -- but he's never forgotten the folks back home. When the 32-year-old actor-rapper and his wife, actress Jada Pinkett Smith, 29, were expecting their first child, son Jaden, now 3, the couple hatched a plan to give back to the communities that had nurtured them. (Smith has a 7-year-old son, Trey, from a previous marriage, and daughter Willow was born in October.) They created the Will & Jada Smith Family Foundation to help inner-city, youth-oriented causes, particularly in Philadelphia (where Will grew up), Baltimore (Jada's hometown), and Los Angeles (their current residence). The foundation has donated more than $600,000 to more than a dozen charities, including Camp Ronald McDonald and Philadelphia Futures, which pairs high school students with mentors.
Smith is always on the lookout for charities that need help -- even when he's on a movie set. After spending six months in Savannah, GA, filming The Legend of Bagger Vance, Smith donated $50,000, as well as books and computers, to a local shelter for children.
"Will is very family-oriented," says the foundation's executive director, Karen Evans, "and he comes home often enough to see the struggles our cities are having. He really wants to give folks a hand."
Write the foundation at P.O. Box 30080, Baltimore, MD 21270.
Mobilizing Stars for African Children
Without a doubt, being tall, handsome, and Oscar-nominated (for Schindler's List) are advantages when going to battle for your favorite cause.
When Irish actor Liam Neeson, 49, and his wife, actress Natasha Richardson, 38, became parents to Michael, 6 (brother Daniel is 4), Neeson was inspired to help less-fortunate children. Since 1996, he has been special patron of Unicef Ireland.
Through his work with Unicef, Neeson became aware of the plight of many African children. In such countries as the Ivory Coast, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, mother-to-infant HIV transmission is pandemic -- but could be largely prevented through the use of an inexpensive medication.
Last November, Neeson and Unicef Ireland set up Movie Action for Children to raise money for treatment centers and to increase awareness of the problem. The actor persuaded other stars to contribute props for a March auction at Sotheby's in New York. Donations included Neeson's Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace light saber, Catherine Zeta-Jones's Mask of Zorro costume, and Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones bullwhip. Sotheby's waived its commission, and the event raised more than $1 million.
"I am genuinely humbled, but delighted, that we have been able to save so many lives," Neeson has said. "It seems somehow appropriate that the world of make-believe will provide a very real future for thousands of kids through Unicef's work."
For more information, go to www.unicef.org.
Believing in the Power of Sports
To play an inspirational high school football coach in Remember the Titans, Denzel Washington may well have called upon personal experience. He grew up a child of divorce, and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America -- which offer a variety of sports, educational, arts, and other programs to disadvantaged kids -- had a huge impact on his life. As a result, Washington, 46, believes strongly in the power of sports to put children on the right path.
Now the Oscar winner (for Glory) and father of John David, 17, Katia, 13, and twins Malcolm and Olivia, 10, with his wife of 17 years, Pauletta, 50, shows his appreciation as spokesman for the organization that once helped him so much.
But his efforts don't stop there. Washington, a preacher's son, is also involved with his Pentecostal church in West Los Angeles and has coached the sports teams of all his children, including John David's high school football team. And he has quietly donated millions to children's hospitals and Nelson Mandela's Children's Fund. But, like the proud, private characters he portrays, he would never brag about it.
For information about the Boys & Girls Clubs, go to www.bgca.org.
Going to Bat for Abused Children
Home-run king Mark McGwire is fighting child abuse with the same approach he takes toward fastballs: He comes out swinging. The father of 13-year-old Matt was moved to help when close friend Alexandra Dickson, then working for a children's center, opened his eyes to the prevalence of child abuse. When McGwire, 37, signed with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1997, he contributed $1 million to start the Mark McGwire Foundation for Children, and he continues to donate that amount each year. Although the foundation does not solicit funds, contributions are welcome -- in fact, in 1998, Rosie O'Donnell honored McGwire's record-setting streak of 70 home runs with a $50,000 donation.
The MMF, with Dickson as the director, distributes money to agencies that help abused and neglected children in the St. Louis and Los Angeles areas. McGwire recently funded a documentary about child abuse, Close to Home, which he hopes will be shown to those who deal with children, including educators, child-welfare workers, judges, and counselors. "Sexual and physical abuse isn't something that people want to talk about," McGwire says. "But for the sake of children, I think we should talk about it."
For more information, go to mcgwire.kids.yahoo.com.
Shining a Light on HIV and AIDS
He's a prolific actor whose film career inspired the game "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon." He's devoted to his wife of 12 years, actress Kyra Sedgwick, 35, and their kids, Travis, 10, and Sosie, 7. And if you ask volunteers at the Northern Lights program -- part of New York's Children's Hope Foundation, which supports children, teens, and families affected by HIV and AIDS -- they will tell you Kevin Bacon, 43, has other qualities as well. "He and Kyra have been our guardian angels," says Laura Lazarus, the program's former executive director. "Whenever we need anything, we can turn to them."
Shortly after Travis was born, Kyra watched a television program about babies infected with HIV. Feeling grateful for their own healthy child, the couple contacted Northern Lights and have been honorary board members ever since.
Bacon's participation extends beyond writing checks. In addition to donating profits from CDs by his sibling rock-and-roll band, the Bacon Brothers, he has gone on outings with Northern Lights-sponsored children and served as host and auctioneer for the organization's fundraisers. Even when his career keeps him away from New York, Bacon lends Northern Lights his moral support. "Kevin was on the road last May when we had an auction," says Lazarus, "but he still wrote the loveliest note for us to read at the event."
For more information, go to www.childrenshope.org.
Rocking for His Hometown's Kids
Tim McGraw is one of the bestselling acts in country music history. He and his wife, superstar singer Faith Hill, 33 (their joint "Soul 2 Soul" tour last year grossed $49 million), are parents to two girls, Gracie, 4, and Maggie, 3. But McGraw, 34, hasn't forgotten what it was like growing up financially strapped in Rayville, LA.
Although the Grammy-winning duo and their children live in Franklin, TN, for the last seven years McGraw has sponsored Swampstock, a concert and celebrity softball game, in Rayville (where Faith and Tim were married under his aunt's oak tree). Swampstock's proceeds are distributed to youth organizations such as a scholarship fund and a local Little League (McGraw's biological father is baseball great Tug McGraw, whom he first met when he was 11). The charity also built the Tim McGraw Sports Complex as a gift for Rayville's kids.
"I began my Swampstock event out of a desire to give something back to my hometown community," McGraw says. "The kids there needed a place to play ball, a real field. That was never available when I was a child. Now the Little League teams have a nice field, and we have been able to expand it over the last few years. When I had my own children, I realized even more how much having this place meant to the parents."
In addition, McGraw has participated in radiothons and fundraising auctions for St. Jude's Children's Hospital in Memphis, and when he's on tour, he tries to visit local children's hospitals. He's even held small gigs the night before big concerts and given the earnings to local hospitals.
So it seems fitting that last year the National Fatherhood Initiative (www.fatherhood.org), a nonprofit organization that promotes responsible parenting, named him Father of the Year.
Advocating for Kids with Cleft Palates
On TV's Titus, acclaimed actor Stacy Keach plays Papa Titus, a boorishly insensitive father. His character in real life could hardly be more different. Keach, 60, who was born with a cleft lip and partially cleft palate, has spent more than 25 years trying to help children with those birth defects. As honorary chair of the American Cleft Palate Foundation, he has joined forces with Arizona Senator John McCain to urge Congress to pass the Treatment for Child Deformities Act. The bill would require insurance companies to cover reconstructive surgery for children with congenital or developmental deformities, diseases, or injuries. The surgery to correct a cleft palate is now considered cosmetic and therefore not covered by insurance.
"I was blessed because my maternal grandfather was fairly well off and could pay for the surgery," Keach says. "Currently, many families are faced with the awful choice of no surgery or financial devastation. It is criminal that, in 2001, children are not getting this surgery because insurance companies won't cover it. The difference it can make in a child's life is beyond description."
Now the father, with wife Malgosia, of son Shannon, 12, and daughter Karolina, 10, Keach is also the international spokesperson for the World Craniofacial Foundation, which raises funds to provide surgery for children with craniofacial deformities and gives educational materials to doctors throughout the world.
For more information, go to www.worldcf.org, or www.cleftline.org.
Addressing Issues Through Song
Country star Collin Raye -- the singer with 11 number-one hits and a new duet with Kathie Lee Gifford -- is nearly as well-known for his social consciousness and his concern for children as he is for his music. Raye's music has dealt with some serious issues: In his 1991 hit "Little Rock," he sang about alcoholism; the following year, "Not That Different" addressed racism; and his 1998 song "The Eleventh Commandment" spoke poignantly about child abuse.
"If I can make a difference and get something positive happening with a song, then I feel that is my duty," says the father of Brittany, 18, and Jake, 16.
The plight of abused children is something Raye feels particularly passionate about. He earmarked much of the profits from his recent children's album, Counting Sheep, for his favorite charity, ChildHelp USA, an organization that provides shelter and counseling for abused kids. He has also visited refugee camps in war-torn Kosovo and Macedonia, organized numerous fund-raising concerts for ChildHelp USA, and taken part in USA Weekend's Make a Difference Day 2000. "Once you become a parent," Raye says, "these issues become even more important."
For more information, go to www.childhelpusa.org.
Honoring a Beloved Sister
Michael Park's real life couldn't be more different from his reel life. As Jack Snyder, the hunky ex-FBI agent-turned-police detective on the CBS soap opera As the World Turns, Park has been shot, stabbed, taken hostage, and, in true soap fashion, torn between two beautiful women. But in real life, Park, 31, who is married to his college sweetheart, Laurie, and is a doting father to Christopher, 3, and Kathleen, 1, devotes a great deal of energy to children's charities. "I have a very soft spot for kids," he says.
Park's desire to make a difference goes back to an early tragedy. When he was 16, his 14-year-old sister Licia died from leukemia. "It was very hard on all of us, but groups like CURE and Camp Good Days and Special Times gave us support. I've never forgotten that, because a disease like leukemia doesn't just happen to the child -- it happens to the whole family."
Now that Park has a family of his own, he says, "I don't know how my parents were so strong." So when fans started sending him baby gifts, he encouraged them to make donations to CURE instead. And just this year, he hosted a telethon for the Children's Miracle Network and performed at a benefit for St. Jude's Children's Hospital. "Even if I weren't a celebrity," he says, "I would use my skills to help wherever I could."
For more information, log on to www.campgooddays.org.