News & Media


Gordon's philanthropic journey continues in Congo

July 20, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Member of invitation-only leadership group established by Clinton Global Initiative

Following his 11th-place finish Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Jeff Gordon departed the Granite State for New York -- not exactly a surprise given that the driver maintains an address in Manhattan. Then he boarded a plane for Frankfurt, Germany -- again, no shocker since this is an off week for the Sprint Cup tour, and Gordon is one of those competitors who would rather use the rare breaks in the schedule to get away from it all instead of racing somewhere else. An escape to this weekend's Formula One event at Nurburgring, perhaps?

Hardly. From Frankfurt he flew to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which doesn't exactly fit the description of an exotic vacation destination for a four-time NASCAR champion who's won more than $119 million in his career. Then he boarded another flight to Kigali, the capital of the central African nation of Rwanda, where he arrived at about 2 a.m. local time. There was one more plane to catch, and finally, 28 hours after leaving the United States, Gordon reached his final destination -- the Rwandan town of Kamambe, which borders the war-torn and strife-ridden Democratic Republic of Congo.

"My expectations are to see some jaw-dropping, eye-opening experiences that are going to change my life forever. "

--JEFF GORDON


_______________________


_______________________

"If we are really going to stand behind the work that we're wanting to do, how can you do it from that far of a distance without really getting in there and truly understanding it? "

--JEFF GORDON

This is not exactly your typical off-week excursion for a top NASCAR driver. But for Jeff Gordon the philanthropist, whose race car is backed by an end-hunger campaign and whose foundation funds a children's hospital in Charlotte, it's becoming increasingly part of the routine. As a member of an invitation-only leadership group established by the Clinton Global Initiative -- an organization founded by former president Bill Clinton to explore solutions to global problems -- Gordon will be on a fact-finding trip in the Congo through Thursday, exploring villages and refugee camps in one of the poorest and most dangerous countries in the world.

"It's a very quick trip, but there's a lot packed into a short period of time," Gordon said in New Hampshire. "My expectations are to see some jaw-dropping, eye-opening experiences that are going to change my life forever. Hopefully, we can do some very good things to try to change that in the future."

It all makes moonlighting at Nashville Superspeedway seem simple by comparison. Gordon was invited into the group because of the work of his foundation, which not only built the Charlotte hospital but also supports a pediatric cancer research lab at Riley Children's Hospital in Indianapolis. Among those joining him on the Congo trip were actress Ashley Judd, wife of open-wheel (and former NASCAR) racer Dario Franchitti, and Myron Rolle, a defensive back for the Tennessee Titans. Gordon, whose foundation does some work in Africa, was there to explore health issues in the region and see how he might be able to help.

Gordon is no stranger to charity work, particularly now that his Sprint Cup car is backed by the AARP's Drive to End Hunger campaign. Prior to last weekend's event at New Hampshire, Gordon visited a food bank in Manchester where he presented a $10,000 donation that will reportedly serve 70,000 meals. Next week's visit to Indianapolis brings another fundraiser for the Riley Children's Hospital in the form of Gordon's annual celebrity bowling event. While many other drivers have foundations and are active in philanthropy, Gordon seems to attack charity work with as much vigor as he does opponents behind the wheel of his No. 24 car.

"I want to help people," said Gordon, whose foundation was founded in 1999, and six years later exceeded $1 million in annual contributions. "I feel like in my life, that's been important. This [NASCAR] community is really good about that. My main focus through my foundation is children, and I'm very passionate about that. But that doesn't mean we only do things for children."

While Gordon's foundation has donated incubators to an island in Tanzania and recently launched an initiative to provide pediatric cancer care in Rwanda, Congo is another matter. Consistently ranked among the most dangerous countries in the world, it was ruled for more than three decades by a dictator whose reign ended in a civil war. Congo in the years since has been wracked by warring tribes and militias, and the eastern part of the country -- which Gordon's group is visiting -- remains particularly troubled, having been the flashpoint for a struggle over the area's natural resources that mushroomed into the world's deadliest armed conflict since World War II. About two million people are believed to be displaced by the constant cycle of war.

Translation: This is no mere check presentation. Eastern Congo is a notorious breeding ground for disease, famine and rape, with available medical help far outstripped by the need. In January, the U.S. State Department issued a warning against any unnecessary travel in the region. Gordon did his homework, and knew what he was getting into. It was enough to make even a race car driver, who makes his living managing risk, blanch.

"I'll be honest I didn't know a lot about the Congo, and as I've gotten closer and closer to this trip coming, I read more and more about the Congo. I'm not saying I'm scared, because I have confidence in who we have organizing the trip, and you look at the names on the list that are going with us, people like Ashley Judd, I know we're in good hands," Gordon said in New Hampshire.

"Then you read about the Congo, and you realize that the government has a tough enough time controlling and keeping things safe, so there's definitely a little bit of fear that's built in there. And it's a long way to go. It's a short trip but I think it's very valuable, and I think it's important to what our cause is about. If we are really going to stand behind the work that we're wanting to do, how can you do it from that far of a distance without really getting in there and truly understanding it? So I'm excited form that standpoint, but you see some of the photos and some of the worst living conditions that you could ever imagine. That's in a photo, so when you get there and you actually get to see it with your own eyes, I'm only expecting it to be worse."

And yet, judging by the Twitter dispatches he's using to document every step of his journey, it's clear Gordon is embracing the adventure, and the possibilities it provides. One of his first stops inside Congo was the city of Bukavu, which had been the site of a major refugee camp during the Rwandan genocide. "Bukavu is unlike any place I'll ever experience again. Very humbling experience," Gordon tweeted. For Jeff Gordon the race car driver, it was an awakening. For Jeff Gordon the philanthropist, it was the next step along the journey.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.