Our charitable athletes come in all forms. Some are known around the world, some aren’t. Some are at the peak of their game; some are no longer involved in competition. Yet what they all share is the passion to be part of something bigger than themselves. Whether it’s hosting a sports clinic at a local Boys and Girls Club, participating in a community clean up, or advocating on Capitol Hill for a certain cause, our athletes are dedicated to making a difference in the world by giving back.
It is fitting that Athletes for Hope first met Etan Thomas at a KaBOOM! playground build. Giving back is such an important part of his life that if you had to guess where Etan was, it would be safe to assume he’s somewhere in the community positively impacting those in need.
When we first began to talk to Etan about his philanthropic interests, he mentioned that he was passionate about improving the lives of underserved children. Shortly thereafter, Athletes for Hope facilitated an opportunity for Etan to speak at the Newport Mill Middle School. He masterfully gained their attention, shared his message of pursuing your dreams, and signed autographs for nearly 100 children.
In 2008 Etan found out he needed open heart surgery to repair a leak in his aortic valve. After successful surgery and recovery, Etan discovered his passion for helping others with heart related issues. Athletes for Hope soon connected Etan to the American Heart Association and he later became a spokesperson for the organization and shared valuable insight through his inspiring story of recovery.
Over the last several years Etan has continued to support a variety of charitable causes. He recently spoke to a group of juvenile inmates at the Washington DC Correctional Treatment facility, and it was clear that he had their attention from the moment he walked in. Etan spoke passionately of the struggles he faced growing up and how they still had time to change their lives for the better. At the end of the speech, it was clear that his impact was deeply felt as individual after individual thanked him and promised to make better life choices in the future.
“Etan is a rare jewel,” L.A. Lakers Guard Derek Fisher said. “He’s committed to life outside the NBA. Etan believes there’s a higher purpose, a higher power. He’s committed to using this platform to influence young people and impact lives that will transcend any contributions he has on the court.”
Ann Gaffigan first learned about Athletes for Hope at one of our athlete workshops. When we asked the group if they felt obligated to give back, her interest was peaked. She had always wanted to get involved, but was unsure how to begin.
Through our Causeway initiative, we helped Ann discover her passion – gender equality in sports. Then we located a fitting organization called Girls, Inc., right near Ann’s home in California. On her first day with the girls, Ann explained where her passion originated from by showing a video of her Olympic trial competition. Despite winning the Steeplechase, Ann couldn’t proceed to the Olympics because it only had a male Steeplechase event. When Ann saw how her story resonated so deeply with girls in their formative years, she was hooked. She returned that summer and taught a 10-week class. Later, Girls, Inc. asked Ann to be on their Board of Directors.
When Ann moved to Missouri, she was unable to continue with a Girls, Inc. because it didn’t have a local chapter. So we found her a new organization called WIN KC, which allowed her to continue spreading her message. Over the course of her work with Athletes for Hope, Ann has instilled the notion of athletic gender equality in hundreds of girls. We are honored to continue helping Ann through her philanthropic journey, and she appreciates our role. “I credit Athletes for Hope with helping me,” she says. “They don’t just pair athletes with community organizations. They pair them with the right organizations for that athlete, based on their interests and passion.”
Muhammad and his wife Yolanda have been an integral part of Athletes for Hope since inception. From the very first meeting with Athletes for Hope Founding Athletes, Muhammad’s presence amongst the group was felt deeply. Muhammad’s life has been an inspiration to millions all over the world, and our other Founders are no exception. As Andre Agassi said, “everything stops when he comes into the room,” and Muhammad carries this aura wherever he goes.
Muhammad and Yolanda always look for ways to utilize Muhammad’s life lessons for the greater good. Through this thinking, they hosted the first ever Athletes for Hope Founders Executive Director Retreat at the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky. Focusing on the core themes of peace, social responsibility, and respect, the center was a tremendous inspiration and catalyst for spirited discussion about how we can all make a greater impact through our work. The event was such a success that it has now become an annual tradition amongst the Athletes for Hope Founding Executive Directors.
Muhammad has also inspired hundreds of Major League Baseball and professional basketball players over the last several years through his presence in Athletes for Hope workshops. The workshops, focused on philanthropic education, provide insightful examples through Muhammad’s life experiences and devotion to the community. Largely because of Muhammad’s presence, former Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen called the workshop “the best meeting we’ve had in 30 years.” Players have left the workshops amazed and empowered to make a greater difference in their communities. As a result of the workshops, players from the San Francisco Giants, San Diego Padres, Milwaukee Brewers, and Chicago White Sox frequently work with us to impact charities in their communities.
Heather Mitts has been a big part of Athletes for Hope since she participated in our first ever workshop in 2007. When we asked her US Soccer teammates if they felt obligated to give back, Heather made it clear that community involvement is an opportunity she doesn’t take lightly.
After discussing Heather’s philanthropic interests for several months, we helped her discover her passion – helping children in underserved communities. In late 2007, Athletes for Hope identified the Hollywood Boys and Girls Club as a charity that matched Heather’s interests, and she began to work with them shortly thereafter. After facilitating a soccer clinic with the kids during the first visit, Heather fell in love with the club.
“When you are as lucky as I am to be a professional athlete and role model, it gives me a rare opportunity to give back to these kids. The Hollywood Boys and Girls Club kids are always so energetic, willing to listen and to learn. I try to instill confidence and connect with every single one of the kids. I do it because I can see and feel the impact we are making,” Heather said.
Years after her first visit, Heather has visited the Hollywood Boys and Girls Club many times, raised over $10,000 for them through Athletes for Hope’s Race for a Cause competition, and has donated soccer equipment on several occasions. Heather’s work with the Hollywood Boys and Girls Club has also inspired her to work with other clubs in Philadelphia, Boston, and Cincinnati. Notably, with our help, Heather visited six different clubs during one summer to introduce the Philadelphia Boys and Girls Club’s Triple play program promoting health, fitness, and nutrition.
Although Heather travels frequently throughout the year, she works with Athletes for Hope to coordinate a visit with the Hollywood Boys and Girls Club whenever she is in the Los Angeles area, and she often brings her US Women’s Soccer teammates with her.
“[Heather and Athletes for Hope’s] work with our club has been a tremendous inspiration. The focus on themes such as being active, staying in school, good sportsmanship, and teamwork has really hit home and made a big impact with our kids. We can’t say enough about how valuable these experiences have been to our club,” Hollywood Boys and Girls Club Executive Director Melba Culpepper said.
Following an Athletes for Hope workshop with a group of athletes from USA Track & Field (USATF), Kara was very excited about getting started with her charitable involvement. She had always wanted to become more involved in her community and she saw this as a perfect way to begin.
Kara had some ideas about her charitable passions, but nothing was set in stone. After talking to us, Kara was connected to a youth center in her local community, which she recognized was doing great work. She had a good visit, but to her surprise she realized that working with youth in that setting wasn’t really her passion.
Kara reflected on her experience and eventually reached back out to Athletes for Hope. Our team made sure Kara knew that like her, many athletes do not find their passion immediately. Philanthropy is a journey and often athletes volunteer with multiple charities or causes before they discover the one that resonates most with them. Kara was ready to try something new and we connected her with the San Diego Humane Society. She loved it from the moment she walked in the door.
Today, Kara is a supporter of everything related to the San Diego Humane Society. After attending numerous orientations and learning more about the organization, Kara became an official volunteer. Whenever she can, Kara provides direct care to abused or abandoned animals at the facility. Additionally, Kara has recently become a bigger advocate for the organization and has participated in fundraisers. When asked about her experience with the Humane Society, Kara simply states, “I am loving it.”