By Talia Bargil
NAIROBI, Kenya — When former NBA star Kermit Washington recently called Houston Rocket Ron Artest from a third-world Nairobi, Kenya, it was not to talk hoops.
The emergency phone call was regarding saving a child’s life.
Seven-year-old Kenyan, Jermaine Lubanga, was suffering from a condition that, as a result of breathing trouble, was damaging his young heart. After visiting the Ray of Hope Clinic in Nairobi, which Artest helps fund, the poverty-stricken boy’s only chance for survival was surgery – an impossible option for the poor African family.
Artest, who experienced a life-changing goodwill mission to Africa in 2007, quickly informed Washington he would fund the operation. Shortly following, Dr. Ndirangu of Nairobi Hospital performed the surgery.
In part of a letter to Artest, the boy’s mother, Vanessa Lubanga, writes:
“When my son was sick, we did not know why he was always tired and sweating. We thought he was just playing too hard. But we were told by the people in your clinic that he should see a specialist. You can only see one in Africa if you have money…they said he needed an operation, which is very expensive, but if he did not get it, there was trouble ahead. So with your help, my son had the operation…and he came out successfully because of you. I don’t know how to thank you, a person that I have never met. You are a Godsend to the people of Africa and we all love you for what you are and have done. God bless you!”
It was the summer of 2007 that the forward joined members of the National Basketball Player’s Association (NBPA), Feed The Children and Project Contact Africa to visit needy families and distribute food in the slums of Kenya.
“When I first thought of going to Africa, I just wanted to touch the continent, touch the soil of where I came from. But when we went to the reality of Africa – to the slums – the poverty is so overwhelming, it was really hard to see and have that soak in. The people have no running water, no sewer systems, and often eat only one meal per day,” said Artest, who grew up in Queensbridge, NY, in the state’s largest public housing complex.
A tireless defender and vocal presence on the court, Artest interestingly grows humble when it comes to his off-court contributions.
“There are so many hungry and sick children there. If everyone could see for themselves how these people are living, they would immediately want to help,” he said.
And without hesitation, Artest did – and continues to do – just that.
In 2008, he covered the costs to build and equip an HIV testing clinic for the Ray of Hope Clinic in Nairobi and made an additional donation to pay for the lab technicians’ salaries for 2009. Named the “Ron Artest Laboratory” in his honor, Washington says the facility services thousands of Africans each year who could not otherwise afford medical care.
“I am so proud of the generous contributions and tremendous impact Ron continues to make in Africa following the NBPA’s initiative, ‘Feeding One Million,’ in Nairobi. His commitment to the community is a true testament to his character,” said Billy Hunter, NBPA Executive Director. “Ron is involved with numerous non-profit organizations and he, along with a number of his peers, are certainly exhibiting their commitment to making a difference worldwide.”
For the St. John’s standout, making a donation does not end with sending a check. During his travels to Africa, Artest visits orphanages, plays with schoolchildren and distributes food.
“He may act crazy during games, but he has the same passion for the people he helps,” said Washington, NBPA regional representative and founder of Project Contact Africa, which provides quality medical services to underserved people living in Kenya’s slums. “Some people may say bad things about him, but Ron is a generous, caring and courageous person.”
A father of four, Ron-Ron also dedicates himself to a number of additional charitable causes. Launching Xcel Unversity in 2007 to encourage and reward students leading productive lives, Artest remains an active contributor in his hometown and in the cities of the organizations in which he has played. Back in the New York City Queensbridge Projects, he sponsors basketball tournaments, sends kids to summer camp, pays private school tuition for students showing academic promise and even hosted a barbeque for residents of his old community.
In 2008, Artest reunited with Feed The Children for a mission to Central America, where he delivered rations and supplies to deprived areas in Honduras. He became a spokesman for the PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) Animal Birth Control campaign and covered the costs for pet owners in Sacramento to have their pit bulls spay and neutered.
A Mathematics major at St. John’s, he took his passion for the subject and launched “The Artest Math Masters” program in Houston, rewarding students who maintain high grades in math. Artest also continues to support PETA in Houston through several programs and events.
From visiting dozens of community centers, schools and libraries in low-income areas nationwide throughout his career, Artest is on a mission to speak to kids about the virtues of education and a life void of violence and drugs.
“It’s tough out there, and I think everyone needs to pitch in. We all live in the same world, so it’s important to help as much as possible,” he said. “Obviously no one person can save the world, but we can all do a little bit, and collectively that would help a lot of people.”
He may be a center of controversy in the NBA, but there’s no debating Artest’s compassion for the world’s underprivileged.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” says Washington, “If there’s such thing as karma, Ron Artest is going to be allright.”