Greensboro’s Joey Cheek highlights African children’s health

by Jordan Green

When speed skater Joey Cheek secured the Olympic gold in Torino, Italy last month, he cheered Gate City residents by proving a fine representative for his native Greensboro, while at the same time shining a spotlight on the acute challenges facing African children, who have received little attention in recent years.

The 26-year-old Cheek donated the $25,000 he earned from the US Olympic Committee for his gold medal in the 500-meter race to Right To Play, a humanitarian international organization founded by Johann Olav Koss, a four-time gold medalist from Norway. Cheek followed up his gold medal with a silver in the 1,000-meter race and promptly handed over an additional $15,000 from that feat to the Right To Play.

Throughout the 2006 Winter Olympics Cheek continually championed Right To Play, urging his corporate sponsors and fellow Olympians to join him. On Feb. 19, Right To Play announced that Cheek had helped raise $300,000 for the organization through matching corporate donations.

The money will go to a Right To Play program in Chad for Sudanese refugees who have fled the ongoing genocide in the Darfur region of that country, as well as to the organization’s Zambia program for HIV/AIDS education work.

Few North Carolinians had probably heard of Right To Play before the Torino games but Cheek is not the only idealistic young man with ties to Greensboro who gravitated to the organization and the cause of aid to disadvantage African children.

Christian Carillo-Bustamante graduated with Grimsley High School’s Class of ’96 as an international exchange student from Ecuador. He went home for his undergraduate studies, but returned to Greensboro to receive his masters in business administration from UNCG’s Bryan School. Until October 2004 he worked on UNCG’s campus for the College Foundation of North Carolina counseling low-income Latino families on how to send their children to college.

For an athlete with a passion for working with society’s excluded ‘— Carillo-Bustamante ran a marathon on Mount Kilimanjaro on Feb. 26 ‘—’ leaving North Carolina to work for Right To Play in Africa was a natural step.

He is currently Right To Play’s country manager for Tanzania.

‘“I liked working in North Carolina, but I wanted to go somewhere where I was more needed,’” said Carillo-Bustamante, who was reached by phone in Dar Es Salaam on March 1. ‘“I wanted to go somewhere where I could make a bigger impact.’”

Right To Play describes itself as an ‘“athlete-driven, international humanitarian organization that uses sports and play as a tool for development of children and youth in the most disadvantaged areas of the world.’”

‘“We work in refugee camps in local communities with children from Congo and Burundi,’” said Carillo-Bustamante, who is now 28. ‘“There was just a peace agreement in Burundi so a lot of refugees have been going back for repatriation, but because of the drought and the famine a lot of them are coming back here.’”

Sports might seem somewhat frivolous in consideration of the ravages of war and an HIV pandemic sweeping the African continent, but the educational message of Right To Play can have life-or-death consequences .

‘“It’s about keeping children healthy and active through adulthood,’” Carillo-Bustamante said. ‘“We have several games that symbolically teach about HIV prevention. [In one] kids can be in a circle. The circle can be the immune system. One kid can be the virus, running around trying to get in.’”

Cheek plans to visit Zambia in April, according to an announcement by Right To Play. Carillo-Bustamante may never meet the speed skater, but their work is inextricably linked.

Cheek is also booked to appear in Greensboro on March 23 at a meet-and-greet networking event hosted by the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce at the Cultural Arts Center. Billed ‘“Business and Politics: A Reception for Elected Officials,’” the event is being sponsored by BellSouth, Jefferson Pilot Financial and the Guilford County/Greensboro/High Point Workforce Development Board.

No doubt the world-famous speed skater will be working the crowd to secure pledges from the corporate executives for money to fund children’s health development projects in Africa.

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