Local Athletes Giving Back through Charitable Foundations

By Biertempfel, Rob | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, December 24, 2006 | Go to article overview
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Local Athletes Giving Back through Charitable Foundations

Biertempfel, Rob, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Ben Roethlisberger's charitable foundation is going to the dogs, which is exactly the way he wants it.

In July, the Steelers quarterback set aside more than $100,00 to start a foundation to provide companion dogs for the blind, the disabled, and emergency personnel.

"I've always been a dog person," Roethlisberger said. "And I've got a lot of police friends, so I know there's never enough police dogs out there."

Roethlisberger's foundation last month made its first grant, $9,000, to purchase a new drug-sniffing canine for the police department in his hometown of Findlay, Ohio.

It might seem like a modest start, but Roethlisberger believes it will lead to bigger things. He plans to start a children's aid program that will be called Big Ben's Little Friends.

"I have so much," said Roethlisberger, who is in the third year of a $40 million contract. "So why not give back to people who don't have as much?"

Roethlisberger is following the example of three other local pros who stand out as exceptional examples of philanthropy: Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch, Penguins great Mario Lemieux and WNBA star Swin Cash.

They take slightly different approaches -- Batch promotes education, Lemieux attacks cancer, Cash aids at-risk kids -- but they share a common sentiment.

"It's kind of a daunting task, but I have faith in God and I know what direction I want to go with this," Cash said. "I think it's important for me to give back to my hometown because of how much it's given to me. "

Lemieux Foundation

Extraordinary incomes allow professional athletes to become extraordinary philanthropists. For some, starting a foundation is a way to take fundraising to a higher level.

Starting a foundation is a more complicated approach, but with potentially greater impact. A foundation can run an event, such as a golf tournament or camp, and advertise it. That can reap more sponsorships, which will cover the expenses of the event and increase the charitable payout.

"When a big athlete puts his name on a foundation, it's going to carry a lot of clout," said Steve Piascik, a Richmond, Va.-based financial advisor for several NFL, NBA and major league baseball players. "It's not simply writing a check. It means giving a lot of time and work, but the community will benefit a lot more."

Lemieux was inspired to start his foundation after beating Hodgkin's disease in 1993. As a public charity, The Lemieux Foundation gets the bulk of its money from individual donations, and makes its grants to non-profit groups.

"The Lemieux Foundation is not a short-term project but a life- long opportunity for me to give hope to patients and families facing what I know is a frightening battle," Lemieux said.

In 2001, the foundation made a $5 million grant to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center to establish a center for patient care and research. It issued $2.5 million in grants in 2003. That money helped UPMC recruit three nationally recognized researchers.

"This is rather different than what I've experienced with most celebrities," said Ron Herberman, director of the UPMC Cancer Institute. "The usual thing is for them to lend their name and that's it. What Mario has done through his foundation is provide quite a bit of money."

Last year, the Children's Home of Pittsburgh, which offers an adoption program and other children's services, got $2 million from the Lemieux Foundation.

One of the foundation's more recent endeavors has been The Playroom Project at area hospitals for siblings who need a place to go while parents are with their sick children. Austin's Playrooms -- named after Lemieux's own prematurely-born son Austin -- feature bright colors, kid-sized furniture, puzzles, games and videos. Thursday, Lemieux's wife, Nathalie, cut the ribbon for the newest Austin's Playroom at Somerset Hospital.

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