Image: Charde Houston
Kent Flemmer/ NBAE via Getty Images
Charde Houston of the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx says she went through rough times as a child.
NBC News
updated 8/3/2011 5:10:43 PM ET 2011-08-03T21:10:43

Cause Celeb highlights a celebrity’s work on behalf of a specific cause. This week we speak with WNBA All-Star Chardé Houston about her nonprofit foundation, Project Youth Opportunities Unlimited (Project Y.O.U.), which teaches disadvantaged youth about everything from respect and leadership to safe sex.

Despite her experience as a homeless youth, Houston was able to achieve her dreams.  She played basketball for four years at the University of Connecticut, and was selected in the third round of the 2008 draft by the Minnesota Lynx, the team she currently plays for.

In July, Houston was awarded the Dawn Staley Community Leadership Award, honoring her involvement in the community.

Interview by: Lauren Busch, NBC News

Q: Why did you found Project Y.O.U.? What is your role within it?

Houston: I founded Project Y.O.U. because growing up, I didn’t really have focus groups that I could attend to learn about different things I was growing up with, or had questions with or had problems with. So I wanted to provide that support for the youth growing up today.

My role in the organization right now, we’re just trying to get it off the ground, so I am heading the focus group here in Minnesota. I mentor the girls. I teach them about self-esteem, the importance of practicing safe sex, but most importantly, trying to abstain from it altogether, the importance of leadership, responsibility, education, and also create a résumé, so that they can always have it.

Q: What do you think you’ve accomplished since you founded the organizationtwo years ago?

Houston: I’ve accomplished so much. Most of the girls that I mentor every Monday, I’ve had them since last year. I just remember them coming in and they didn’t want to talk. They were kind of apprehensive about opening up to me. But now they call me, they text me, they ask if we can hang out.

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I remember for the Fourth of July, it actually fell on a Monday, so we didn’t have a chance to have a focus group that Monday, and the girls texted me Wednesday like, “we have to make up for it” and I don’t think that was really expected of them.

Q: You received the Dawn Staley Community Leadership Award honoring your outstanding efforts in the community. What does this mean to you and your organization?

Houston: It means so much to me, but most importantly, it just lets me know that what I’m doing to help the youth is working, and people recognize that as an accreditation for my organization inknowing that we have great staff who are committed to the well-being of youth as well.

Q: Everyone has different strengths they bring to an organization; how does being a professional athlete contribute to your charity, other than publicity?

Houston: Most importantly, they view me not as a professional athlete, but as an individual who has gone through the same situations that they are facing right now. It kind of shows that me being a professional, and having gone through the things they are currently facing, they are able to get through it, they are able to become productive members of society, they are able to achieve anything that they put their mind to.

Q: What does Project Y.O.U. bring to the table that distinguishes it from other similar charities?

Houston: I can’t really speak on behalf of other charities because I don’t know exactly what they do, in terms of how they deal with their youth, so I don’t want to undermine anybody’s organization. But I think that one thing that we really do focus on is the personal relationship within my organization, and making sure that our staff is readily available to the youth. 

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My phone is never turned off. Whenever my youth need anything, they can call me, they can text me, and I’ll always be there for them. That’s one thing that I always wanted to make sure because growing up and having to deal with a lot of things, as a child, you kind of have that fear of neglect, you have that fear of people promising you things and not really following through. So I’ve always promised that I’ll always be there for them, and even if I can’t take the phone call at that immediate time, I will always return their phone call, or text, or whatever it may be.

Q: Obviously donating money is helpful, but in these difficult economic times, is there anything else people can do to support the organization?

Houston: Yes, we actually have an annual school supply drive that we do, and usually it’s in May, but this year, we haven’t had it yet, so we’re always asking for school supplies to help encourage youth to read and write. Even if they don’t have those resources, we want to provide them with those resources, so anything in relation to school. You can always donate old clothes, shoes, and things like that because youth do struggle with that, and it’s not only with our youth, but we also reach out and help people within the community as well. So even if our youth don’t use it, we always hold some type of event where other youth can benefit from the supplies donated as well.

Q: Is there anything else you want to add?

Houston: I encourage everyone in the community to just get involved and be advocates for youth. It’s better to prepare youth than to prepare adults. I think that each and every youth should have a chance to succeed in life. Even if you don’t have the monetary means to do so, I think that spending time with youth means more to youth than anything.

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