When Drew Brees signed with the New Orleans Saints as a free agent, he knew he had to provide the promise of hope to the hurricane-ravaged city.
But more importantly, he wanted to actually deliver it.
Just telling children in New Orleans that he wanted to help raise money to overhaul schools, parks, and athletic fields wouldn’t do. He wanted to make sure “Operation Kids: Rebuilding Dreams” became a reality.
“To put yourself on the line and say you’re going to raise $1.8 million, that’s kind of a gutsy deal especially when, I think, there had been a lot of broken promises down there,” Brees said Monday night before the Henry P. Iba Citizen Athlete Awards.
“We wanted to make sure that people knew that we were accountable to what we said we were going to do, we would follow through with it, and we were able to do that.”
Brees was the male honoree at the annual ceremony that recognizes athletes for being good citizens and helping others. Former Olympic weightlifter Melanie Roach, an advocate for autism research, was the female honoree.
Brees was chosen for his work with his “Brees Dream Foundation,” which started out as a way to raise funds for children’s cancer research. When Brees signed with the Saints months after Hurricane Katrina hit the city in 2005, he found a new cause that needed his aid—but still keeping with the mission of his foundation, which has “always been about kids.”
“In seven years, we’ve been able to either raise or commit $4.5 million. It’s been tough,” Brees said. “It’s been tough at times, especially in this economy. To raise money, you continue to have to find creative ways to do it.”
“It’s challenging, but then when it’s all said and done you see the result of it all and you see the impact that it makes and it makes it all worth it.”
Brees talked about an edible schoolyard that was built at a charter school in New Orleans, where children grow food in a garden that is later used for their meals. The idea is to foster learning of both gardening and culinary skills.
The project was a part of the “Operation Kids” program that recently reached its fund-raising goal for its first phase. Brees said he’s working to identify more schools and parks to that need help during a planned second phase.
“I think that there’s a sense of pride about the city and this passion for just living,” Brees said. “That’s one thing I can say about the people of New Orleans: There’s a passion for living and it’s infectious.”
Brees recalled attending a football camp hosted by Warren Moon and a basketball camp with Avery Johnson when he was growing up in Texas, and figured he had to do his part when he became a high-profile athlete.
“I can remember specifically all these camps and these guys and what they said. When I got to college and was a college athlete and then into the NFL, I realized if these kids are looking up to me as much as I looked up to professional athletes when I was a kid, I understand the importance of being a good role model and giving back to the community,” Brees said.
Roach got involved after her son, Drew, was diagnosed with autism at age two, as she was working to overcome a serious back injury that kept her out of the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.
“It was kind of a steep learning curve. It was a rough year and there was truly a mourning process when my child was diagnosed with autism,” Roach said.
“For me, I really didn’t know where to turn and there wasn’t a lot available at the time.”
Since then, she has worked with Athletes Against Autism, hoping to raise awareness of the disorder and try to find a cure. She has also been advocating for insurance coverage of autism treatment, a hot issue in the Oklahoma Legislature this past year. Gov. Brad Henry’s call for an autism mandate and proposals for the coverage by legislators were defeated in the Republican-controlled Legislature.
“Every chance that I get to talk to youth, I tell them to find their talents that they can use to help impact the lives of others, and that’s what your blessing is,” Roach said.
“To receive an award for my work with autism, I would do it no matter what. It’s just such an honor.”
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