Q: When was the first time you worked with a charity and what was that experience like?
A: The first time I ever worked with a charity was in high school when I ran a March of Dimes Walk-A-Thon in my hometown of Ashland, Ore. It was the first walk-a-thon in Ashland, and we raised something like $10,000 or $15,000, and it felt good! I don’t really know what possessed me. I think I just saw something, read something, got inspired and had my friends join with me. I think it was my junior year.
Q: What are some of the organizations you are involved with and what are their missions?
A: There are a lot of organizations. My sister is a breast-cancer survivor so I got involved with the Susan G. Komen foundation. In fact I’m supposed to ride a hundred miles in September in a kind of a bike-a-thon through Aspen. But, I’ve done runs and that sort of thing. I have also been on their boards as a board member in the past and I’ve done PSAs (public service announcements) and that kind of thing for them.
Also, I care a lot about humanitarian causes. I think that we have an obligation to do what we can to ease suffering. One of the greatest ways that people suffer in our world is because they lack the basic things that many of us take for granted, such as a place to live, something to eat, and an opportunity to get medicine for our children when they are sick. That leads me to the humanitarian issues. So as a result I support something called AmeriCares, which is an organization that responds to humanitarian disasters with planeloads of medicines and foods.
I’m involved with Save the Children, which is another great organization that focuses on the needs of children abroad. And I’m involved with Doctors Without Borders, which is a fantastic organization. When places are very dangerous and people cannot get the help they need they can get help from Doctors Without Borders because they are bold and courageous. I found them on the front lines when I was reporting the stories out of Kosovo and I found them on the front lines of Darfur.
Another organization I like a lot is the Multiple Myeloma Foundation, which is another cancer organization. It’s a rare blood cancer that affects, for example, Geraldine Ferraro. It's run by these twin sisters who responded in such a fierce fashion that they will probably rewrite the way new drugs are tested for all cancers, because the twin who got the disease, Kathy Giusti, is actually a former pharmaceutical executive. So she brought all of that to creating a kind of consortium that created the framework for drug testing, so that drugs can get to people who are sick with cancer faster.
There’s a charity involving American Indians in Arizona (St. Peter's Mission, part of the Gila Indian River community) and they are going to name their library after me, I just found out. I think that it’s really about doing what we can and practicing it whenever it feels right.
Q: Is there a particularly memorable or moving experience that you’ve had while working with one of these charities?
A: I guess the one that was the most moving is an organization that I’m also involved with called Airline Ambassadors that tries to help alleviate suffering. It’s another humanitarian organization and it helped me actually have my first fundraiser for an AIDS orphanage in Botswana. In 2005 I went with the first lady (Laura Bush) to Africa and I went to five African nations. I met these children who had lost their parents to AIDS and some of them, I went on to learn, had lost up to 15 primary caregivers to AIDS.
Botswana is one of the hardest-hit nations by AIDS, vying with only Swaziland for the highest HIV infection rate in the world. These children were beautiful and they were singing to heaven, “Oh Mamma I’m going to be strong just like you.” ... So I had a fundraiser — really there was no organization, just some friends, and Claire, my assistant, and some others — ... at the United Nations at the Delegates Dining Room. And the Airline Ambassadors, because of their experience in humanitarian causes, helped me organize it.
It was very successful and we raised a lot of money for these children, and others have now embraced them and are also raising money for them. As a result they are getting support in education, in clothing, and in housing. I would say that was the most moving because I could see the faces of those in need and I could see the faces of those in their generosity who gave. To be surrounded by both like that is a very emotional experience.
Q: Do you still keep track of them?
A: Yeah I do. My colleague, Antoine Sanfuentes at NBC News, who went with me to Botswana to cover that story, was inspired and he talked to his daughter’s piano teacher. And she organized a charity to raise money for those same children where parents donate a certain amount of money, whatever they want to, for every hour that their children practice the piano. They sent all of that money — a serious amount of money — over to the AIDS orphanage and now there are others who are involved as a result. She is going to continue that practice. We get e-mails from them and certainly we keep in contact but it’s an ongoing need so we’ll see what the challenges are moving ahead.
Q: Why is it important for people to support charitable causes?
A: Oh my lord! I wouldn’t say it’s important to support charitable causes; I would say that it is a gift to support charitable causes. If you can find a way to be generous to others, to alleviate suffering in others, you have found the secret to life. If you want to feel valuable, if you want to feel your time here meant something, if you want to imagine your dying day having felt that it was good that you were here, then you should definitely do something that is of some service, and hopefully you know supporting charitable causes will give you that feeling.
I myself have never felt happier than in knowing that something I had done has helped someone else. ... It has happened that I have a job that allows me to do it in my work, to some degree, but also has allowed me to see in a real naked way the suffering on our planet. ... Even in trying to do good, not knowing if it is going to fully be what I intend, even that is incredibly rewarding. It’s a gift to me. It’s a privilege to be in a position where I can do something that might help someone suffer less. I don’t know how else to live. I don’t know how people who don’t do it live fully because it is so incredibly enriching. I’d say do it for selfish reasons.
Interviewed by Giacinta Pace of NBC News.