By Kate Weldon LeBlanc
Ethan Zohn was the keynote speaker at the JF&CS Board of Advocates annual meeting on November 1. I found Ethan’s remarks not only funny and inspiring but relevant to the JF&CS mission.
Ethan is best known for winning Survivor: Africa (season three) and for the $1,000,000 in prize money. My husband Joe and I watched Survivor faithfully during this time. We were big fans of Ethan, at first because he was from Lexington, Massachusetts and later because he competed with such skill and honor. Ethan managed to win without a single competitor ever voting against him and feels that his integrity has roots in his Jewish faith. Ethan remarked:
"Reality television has been criticized for being against things Jewish, and these critics viewed Survivor as a game that rewarded one for being dishonest and selfish, and one had to isolate oneself in a community to win. I can see these points, but I do not agree. I made myself a crucial member of the community. I was selfless in a selfish game. I was a teacher and a leader. And while I’m certainly proud of winning Survivor, I’m more proud of knowing and understanding what it was that helped me win – my Jewish upbringing – embracing it wholeheartedly, embracing it publicly, and embracing it personally."
Far more astounding than Ethan’s Survivor victory is all that he has done since. He used his prize money to co-found Grassroot Soccer, a charity which uses soccer to educate about HIV/AIDS in Africa. This work was inspired by suffering Ethan witnessed while playing professional soccer in Zimbabwe and later meeting HIV positive children at a hospital during the filming of Survivor. As he got to know people stricken with the disease and witnessed how it destroyed entire communities, HIV/AIDS became more than “faceless numbers” for Ethan.
"It didn’t take long for me to leave the reality show and get back to reality. Winning that money made me take a good hard look at who I was – and although a new car would certainly make me temporarily happy, I wanted to be the type of person who used his celebrity and big check to make a difference in the lives of others. It also gave me perspective on what I call real knowledge - about who you are, what you care about, and how you respond to challenges in your life. It can be an individual who helped shape your life or inspired you. It can be a family crisis that forced you to mature. Or it can even mean being on top of the world and then getting told you have cancer. Which is what happened to me. Twice."
Ethan has faced two bouts of Hodgkins Lymphoma, most recently in September 2011 when he was treated by a new “smart targeted therapy” and a stem cell transplant from his brother. While Ethan is now in remission and feeling well, facing cancer a second time threatened not just his survival but also the hope and healing that he had worked so hard to cultivate. Ethan has responded to this life crisis in his usual style – by giving back to others. He is a strong and loud voice in the movement to end cancer. And he walks this road within a community of loved ones and strangers who are supporting him every step of the way.
"There were times I didn’t want to fight anymore. I had enough. But I had another gut check. I dug really, really deep, and the power of the human spirit, values, and positive attitude came into focus and helped mentally, emotionally, and spiritually to get through this battle. They were inside me, they had been burned into my identity. Somewhere along the way I had forgotten about those things but it was in those dark moments that they came back, just when I needed them, like they always have."
Surrounded by JF&CS colleagues and supporters at the Board of Advocates meeting, I was most struck by how Ethan was unapologetic about the fact that positively impacting the lives of others, whether by sharing your time, money, or expertise, makes your life better as well.
"If you get caught up in work or are having a rough day or lose sight of why you are doing what you are doing, I want you to do me a favor. Pause, take a deep breath, and visualize where all this work is going… it’s in here, inside me. I am living proof. I’ve seen it from both sides now. I know what its like to be on the giving and receiving end of charity. And there are thousands of other people just like me that you have helped."
Kate Weldon LeBlanc has been the associate director of CERS since August of 2009. Kate is passionate about child and family issues, particularly on building communities of support for parents. Prior to her arrival at JF&CS, she spent nearly ten years working in the departments of Child Advocacy and Government Relations at Children’s Hospital Boston. She holds a BSW from Skidmore College and a MPA from UMass Boston.