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Holliday steps to the front for his giving back

Camden native cited for charitable endeavors

Posted: January 18, 2011 4:39 p.m.
Updated: January 19, 2011 5:00 a.m.
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Holliday signs an autograph for a fan.

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On the football field, it sometimes takes a 300-pound behemoth to be able to move Vonnie Holliday. Off the gridiron, however, the smallest person or a cause in need of help can thrust the Camden native into action like no offensive lineman can do to the 6-foot-5, 285-pounder.

Since he was a student at Camden High School, through his collegiate days at the University of North Carolina to his 13-year NFL career, Holliday has been there for people. Over the years, he has provided thousands of turkeys for county residents on Thanksgiving. He has made Christmas brighter for less-fortunate children and families. He has aided Camden High School in many ways while also having found time to be the honorary chairman of the United Way of Kershaw County. Plus, there are countless other random acts of kindness which the 1994 CHS graduate has done “behind the scenes.”

Holliday’s charitable acts, involving both his team and monetary resources, have been well-chronicled and his generosity is well-known here in his hometown. Now, though, Camden’s not-so-well-kept secret is out.

Recently, Holliday was among those honored by Blacksgiveback.com as part of the website’s fourth annual Top 10 Black Celebrity Philanthropists of 2010. The Washington Redskins’ defensive end beat out such celebrities as hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and performers Mary J. Blige and Usher to claim the No. 2 spot on the list. Only Antwan "Big Boi" Patton, one half of the Grammy-award winning hip-hop duo OutKast, fared better than Holliday.

Never one to blow his own horn, especially when it comes to doing things for others, Holliday was humbled at this honor.

 “It’s a really big honor,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Atlanta. “Ordinarily, I don’t like to be recognized for this type of work because it’s something I enjoy doing. This is something I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to do. To be able to use the celebrity that I’ve gained through hard work on the football field to help people in my community and in communities that I’ve encountered … I’m very, very grateful for it.

“I was really surprised when my publicist sent me a text and told me that I had received this honor. And, when she told me about the company I was with, I was overwhelmed. There were people like Russell Simmons, who I work with in his Diamond Empowerment efforts in Africa called, ‘Athletes to Africa,’ along with Alicia Keys, Mary J. Blige and Big Boi … those are some pretty big, big names. And I’m sure they probably raised more money than I do, but I think this honor was also in terms of time spent and the actual energy which you back give to your community. So, this is pretty cool.”

One voter who was involved in the selection process cited Holliday for being more than just a football player with a big heart. "Vonnie Holliday is always going the extra mile to help in his community as well as giving donations to help worthy causes! He is more than a philanthropist, he is a blessing!"

For Holliday being blessed is a two-way street. His football and charitable work tend to keep him away from his wife and two children. He said the life which he now lives with his family is far different than the circumstances which he grew up in while in Camden.

Rather than shield those he loves from the spotlight, he gets them involved. He said that for his daughter and son, working on their father’s charitable projects gives them a glimpse into how others in different communities handle not having all the necessities of life on an everyday basis.

 “At times, it can be time-consuming, but I try to keep my family as involved with it as I can,” Holliday said of his charity work. “With my kids, it’s fortunate, but it’s unfortunate. They’ll never know how my struggle in life made me the person I am in life today and how it shaped and molded me. It’s just a different lifestyle for my kids.

“I try to keep them involved and keep them grounded and let them know this came from hard work. I tell them that it didn’t start out this way for me and that everybody doesn’t necessarily live the way that we do and how important it is for those who have to give back to those who are in need.”

Since 2001, the 35-year-old Holliday has overseen The Vonnie Holliday Foundation, which has provided help to people not only from Camden and Kershaw County, but to other areas in which Holliday’s NFL career has taken him. That list includes stops in Green Bay, Kansas City, Miami, Denver and, this past season, Washington.

Holliday has always been one to dive in, head first, when people need help. Oftentimes, he has lent his assistance from the outside in. That all changed several years ago when an affliction hit close to home.

Holliday’s sister-in-law, 31-year-old Chandria Rouse Kent, the sister of Holliday’s wife, Eboni, was diagnosed with brain cancer. Kent, a married mother of one, battled the disease for five years before finally succumbing to the illness.

“One day,” Holliday said in talking about Kent, “she was perfectly fine, walking around and, of course, not thinking about life and death issues. And then, she has a seizure at her copying machine at work. A couple weeks later, after an MRI, she found out that she had brain cancer.

“She fought it for five years and after her passing, a couple years later, we were trying to find out which way we would go with the foundation and things we could do in this community that were different than what other people were doing. We said, ‘Why not brain cancer?’ It was something that hit very close to home and was something we felt we needed to raise awareness about because it is affecting more and more people. Like all cancer research, we wanted to start an effort to help raise money and increase awareness in this area.”

From there, Holliday and his family established the Chandria Rouse Kent Brain Tumor Fund at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University in Atlanta, through the Vonnie Holliday Foundation.

Having heard of and been affected by friends and family members who had contracted other more well-known forms of cancer, Holliday stepped in to aid in the fight against brain cancer.

“Just watching my family go through it, having to go through it myself and seeing how she changed and how it affected everybody involved …  just seeing at the time how many people weren’t aware of this issue. I certainly had no idea,” he said. “You hear about breast cancer and, I had an uncle who died of throat cancer. You hear about all these cancers, but you don’t really hear a lot about brain cancer.”

The Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University welcomed Holliday and his family’s donation toward the cause with open arms.

“Vonnie’s commitment to this effort, along with his wife Eboni, brother-in-law Darrin and mother-in-law Janie, has touched all of us,” said Walter J. Curran, MD, executive director of Winship at Emory. “That Vonnie and his family have decided to bring attention to this underserved area of research funding is humbling to all of us at Winship. They have turned their profound loss into a beacon of hope for other families.

“Our brain tumor team truly believes that among Chandria’s legacies will be that someday, other families may not have to face the tragedy that she and her family faced.”

Since then, Holliday and his foundation have teamed with Sak’s Fifth Avenue in Atlanta and hosted a benefit which started a grant in Kent’s name to keep her legacy going.

“The money goes toward research and helping families deal with (brain cancer) because, going through the process, there were not a lot of support groups or a lot of information out there for us. So, we sorted our way through it. It’s so much better now,” Holliday said.

Closer to his hometown, Holliday has been forced to clear hurdles thrown in his path as he continues to move forward with a Boys and Girls Club he announced plans for in 2008. Now, he said, things seem to be getting back on track for such a facility.

He said plans are in the works for another fundraiser for the club, a charity golf outing tentatively scheduled to be held April 1, the day before the running of the Carolina Cup Steeplechase Races in Camden.

Holliday admitted he was becoming agitated with the obstacles set in his path by officials with the Boys and Girls Club, especially after announcing his joining up with the organization in a party in Columbia in December of 2008. Things have hardly gone smoothly in his endeavor to give young people in Kershaw County a safe haven at which to work, play and learn.

“I’ve really been stressed and frustrated a little bit with the Boys and Girls Club of the Greater Midlands area,” he said. “We’ve been in contact, but they have kind of dropped the ball in terms of what we had going on in South Carolina.

“We were very optimistic going into this venture and very eager thinking that we were both on the same page. We were very eager to get something started in Camden and in the greater Kershaw County area. But because of budgeting and because they were not sure of how funding would go, because of the economy and keeping the programs which they already have intact afloat, they kind of shied away from it and backed out of the deal.”

Since then, Holliday said, his foundation and the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Greater Midlands have revived talks. He said it looks as if there is going to be an opportunity in the upcoming year to get things going again. The organization, he said, has started a program in Lancaster County and in Elgin. While encouraged by that, Holliday said he is not wavering from bringing a club closer to his hometown.

 “I’ve heard they (the Boys and Girls Club) started doing some good things,” he said. “But I would like to do something closer to home and kind of closer to what my vision was when we teamed up with them initially when we started this drive to get a Boys and Girls Club in our community to try and get the kids involved and away from a lot of the other things which are going on out there.

“We’ve talked about how gangs have picked up in the area. We want to steer kids away from that and, hopefully, get them some enrichment that will lead them to a more productive life.”

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