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Tiki Barber: Providing fresh air for kids

Cause Celeb interviews TODAY correspondent and former NFL star Tiki Barber about his work on behalf of the Fresh Air Fund, which exposes inner-city children to life in the country and suburbs.
Tiki Barber and some children who participated in Fresh Air Fund camps attend the charity organization’s spring gala at Tavern on the Green in New York in June.
Tiki Barber and some children who participated in Fresh Air Fund camps attend the charity organization’s spring gala at Tavern on the Green in New York in June.Jerry Speier and James Levine
/ Source: NBC News

Question: You are involved in a lot of different charity affiliations and, obviously, the Fresh Air Fund. What drew you to wanting to be involved in things like that?

Barber: I grew up in the country down in Virginia. I was out all the time playing in the street, woods, rivers, whatever it was. When I moved to New York City in my second year in the NFL, you realize that there’s not a lot of outdoor space here, at least not safe outdoor space unless you want to get run over by cars. I got exposed to the Fresh Air Fund and their mission, which was to take underprivileged and less-affluent kids from the inner city and give them an opportunity to do what I did, took for granted, as a kid.

A lot of kids in the Bronx or Queens or whatever, all they see is this five-block area — they go to school, they come home, they play around the block. Fresh Air Fund’s mission is to get them out into the country, go to a camp upstate or go live with a friendly town family out in the Hamptons, wherever they may be, and expose them to something. Once you expose them and open their eyes, they start to dream. They start to see things in a bigger light than maybe what they are born into.

Q: What is your role in the charity?

Barber: I am on the board of directors. Primarily what I do is help bring new people into the organization. For instance, I have a friend who has a house in the Hamptons and [they are] thinking about doing something like this. My job would be to ...  just outreach, give this kid a chance.  You don’t know, you may develop a friend for your kids for life, and that’s ultimately what happens with a lot of families. They take in a kid and they end up being with that kid in the summer for two weeks, for years, and so it makes a big difference.

Q: Have you had a chance to directly interact with the kids that you’ve been helping?

Barber: A few times, because they come to the [Fresh Air Fund] benefit every spring, and [I] get to see them there. I also go to the camps upstate and just hang out some days.

Q: I’m sure that means so much to them.

Barber: Yeah, it’s twofold. They get a value because they see a celebrity, and I get a value because I am doing something. I am furthering their life in some way. It may be small, they may not remember it, but in some way I feel it’s meaningful.

Q: I think it’s hard especially with, as you said, living in the city, and not really getting out of that neighborhood.

Barber: Well, it’s hard to get out of the city, especially if you don’t have disposable income to just burn taking trips to places. You end up spending your entire life in a concrete jungle.

Q: Other than just getting out into the country, how do the kids actually benefit from going to these camps?

Barber: I think they see things that they otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to. I get this question a lot: How come African American kids only want to be athletes? How come they all want to be Michael Jordan, or me, or whomever? Well, that’s because that’s what they see. They watch television, or athletes come into their communities, so they see athletes and that’s what they aspire to be. I think the great value in [the Fresh Air Fund] is that they see people of different walks of life who may be a stockbroker or a banker, or a lawyer, whatever it may be that takes in one of these kids.

And by spending a summer there you actually get to learn about people. Not just see them, see the profession and the title, you actually get to learn about who they are and what they do and it may be something they aspire to be and so it opens their mind. That’s the biggest benefit of what the Fresh Air Fund does — it opens kids’ minds and lets them see past what people maybe would pigeonhole them into being.

Q: Is there an experience you’ve had where you’ve really felt rewarded and really made it all worth it?

Barber: I did. Tom Bernstein, who is the president at Chelsea Piers, still heads the Friendly Town committee, which is the one that matches the families with the kids. About seven years ago, his son was a huge Tiki Barber fan and so he asked for Christmas, “All I want is something Tiki Barber.” So Tom called me and I went up and had dinner with him and his three kids and we had a great evening.

He has a sister, who was leery about having a kid come live with them up in their Hamptons house. I explained to her, you never know, don’t be be shy about what you don’t know. Don’t be scared of what you don’t know, because this could be a huge friendship for you and for your family. And so, at the end of the night she went over to her dad and said “Dad, I think I want to have whatever the kid’s name is come stay with us.” And this kid has been with them for the last six years, seven years.

And so, just that one personal attempt, interaction, made a big difference not only in her life, but in the kid’s life as well.

Q: Do you find that a lot when you’re speaking to people? That they are a little hesitant to get involved in the program?

Barber: I don’t think they’re hesitant. They just haven’t been exposed to it, so you’re a little bit leery of what you don’t know. But once anyone has experienced what the Fresh Air Fund does, you’re hooked, because there is no negative to it.

Q: Why do you think it’s important for people to learn about the Fresh Air Fund?

Barber: I think it’s part of a countrywide altruistic movement. There are so many people, especially in this economy, [who are] less capable of doing things with their lives, and so finding ways to give back are important. There are so many different ways, whether it’s to a cancer charity or a poverty-fighting charity, or a charity like the Fresh Air Fund.

It’s fulfilling to give back and I think it furthers us as a country when those who have, help those who don’t. I think one of the big powers that I’ve developed because I’ve played football, is that of influence. I can be an example, and show people that it’s OK to reach out and to do these things.

Q: What are your hopes for the foundation’s future?

Barber: I hope that it keeps growing. One of the big struggles that we’ve had has been finding Friendly Town families. It’s not easy, it’s all fundraising, but you can get the money. You can get people to throw money from on high, from their ivory towers, and say, “yes that’s a good cause” and “yes, I want to help out,” and that’s great. But what really matters is getting people’s hands in the dirt. Which means, having them take on kids, having them go up and visit camps and talk to the kids at camps, and show them different experiences — personally and professionally.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Barber: No, that’s it! I mean, it’s a simple charity. That’s why I like it. Give kids in the inner cities and the less-affluent parts of the city a chance to experience something and dream.

To learn more about The Fresh Air Fund, or to get involved in the organization, visit .

Interviewed by Caroline Sliney, NBC News

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