Drive to make a difference
01/24/2012 12:51 PM
01/27/2012 11:44 AM
At a news conference not long ago, video recorders rolled and cameras flashed at Jeff Gordon Children’s Hospital in Concord as one of NASCAR’s most glamorous power couples, Jeff Gordon and model/actress Ingrid Vandebosch, loaned their names to their latest philanthropic cause. As reporters swarmed with questions about everything from that day’s engine test to what movies they’ve enjoyed watching (George Clooney’s “The Ides of March” topped the list), Gordon took a break from answering to talk to a young pediatric cancer patient dressed as a princess who was visiting from a nearby hospital wing. “Hi there, aren’t you gorgeous?” the four-time NASCAR Cup Series champion said as he squatted to be level with the beaming girl, who trailed an IV behind her. “Look at you. I like your crown, that’s really pretty!” Watching nearby, Vandebosch shook her head with a sad smile. “I just can’t stop crying,” she said. “It gets me every time.” Since 1999, when Gordon formed The Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation, he has surrounded himself with children fighting cancer – a cause that grew close to his heart after his crew chief, Ray Everham, had a son diagnosed with leukemia. Vandebosch joined forces with him when she and Gordon married in 2006, the same year that Jeff Gordon Children’s Hospital opened. She went on to lead Promise Circle, a group of women who pledge at least $1,100 per year for three years toward fighting pediatric cancer. Beginning last summer, the couple added prevention of pertussis – the disease known as whooping cough in infants – to their rosters. And in December, they traveled to Rwanda with their oldest child, 4-year-old Ella, to help open a children’s hospital wing there. “Doing things for the foundation and going to Africa, those things are to me ways to keep everything in perspective, and remind us how precious our children are,” Gordon said during a recent interview. “A lot of times we are jet-setting around, and we can lose that perspective. Doing things as parents, that keeps it very real.” ‘It’s amazing to change people’s lives’ Vandebosch, a native of Belgium who has modeled since the 1980s and whose resume includes the legendary Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, has grown more visible in joining her husband’s philanthropic activities since the two became parents. Daughter Ella was born in June 2007 and son Leo was born in August 2010. “Most of what (Jeff) does is with children, so I just feel so much closer to it now that we have children,” she says. “It’s amazing to be able to do something that changes people’s lives, and to know the stories and get to know the people.” While much of the time Gordon stays focused on pediatric cancer prevention in the U.S., he’s taken on plenty of other causes, too. Last year, he added the AARP’s Drive to End Hunger program to the hood of his No. 24 Chevrolet. The program has raised $12 million and donated more than 3.7 million meals to senior citizens with hunger issues. He has contributed millions to the National Marrow Donor Program. In May, he announced plans to raise $1.5 million to bring cancer treatment to the children of Rwanda. And in October, he and Vandebosch spoke in support of the Sounds of Pertussis campaign, which encourages adults to get the Tdap booster vaccine (tetanus, diphtheria, acellular pertussis) that prevents them from potentially passing pertussis to infants before their own immunizations can take effect. (Research shows that adult family members are the source of 80 percent of pertussis cases in infants). The couple was motivated to join the pertussis campaign after learning of a local woman, Felicia Dube, whose son Carter died of pertussis in 2010. He was just seven weeks old. “What happens is, as a parent, you read every book, you do everything, you make your decisions on vaccinations – and we go along with what the CDC recommends – and we found out there was something we should be doing, beyond just trying to change diapers and keep the house clean,” Gordon says. It was news to him – he and Vandebosch hadn’t known they should get booster shots when their daughter was born, but learned about the issue in time to protect their son. So reminding parents about the importance of adult booster shots, he says, became an important niche to fill. Gordon’s charitable efforts recently earned him recognition as the 2011 NASCAR Illustrated Person of the Year, the third time he has received the honor. And Vandebosch was hailed by the March of Dimes for allowing herself to be photographed receiving her Tdap booster shot. Between news of frightening, and sometimes fatal, crashes during the racing season and being constantly surrounded by worst-case scenarios involving children, Vandebosch finds she has to work on distracting herself so she won’t worry about her family all the time. One stress-relief strategy: “I eat a lot of ice cream,” says the metabolically-blessed Vandebosch. “I just think positive,” she adds. “There’s nothing I can do but support and hope for the best.” And she hopes to keep raising her own profile as a champion of her husband’s causes. “Whenever he wants me to be there next to him, I’m there, and everything he does I stand by,” she says. “I want to be part of all of this.” For more information, visit www.jeffgordonchildrensfoundation.org and www.soundsofpertussis.com.
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