Photography by Keith Berr
We were moments away from the start of our magazine’s photo shoot. Cathleen Laporte, ’97, and former Red Bull New York soccer forward Jerrod Laventure were preparing to read to a group of preschoolers in the grand Victorian sitting room at Harlem’s Hale House. We were awaiting the children’s arrival when the unexpected happened.
The massive double mahogany doors to the sitting room burst open and a group of preschoolers appeared in the threshold, seemingly frozen in place. With arms wide open, Cathleen reached for them. And with huge grins and dancing eyes, they ran to her. It was hard to say which was more infectious—the joyous laughter of the children or the incandescent smile on Cathleen’s face. But there was no mistaking the spontaneity or sincerity of affection that flooded the room. And there was no mistaking the significance of the portrait that had just been revealed—a most remarkable portrait of one of New York’s newest philanthropists, Cathleen Laporte.
Throughout New York City and across the East Coast, the name Cathleen Laporte has become synonymous with helping children in need. Leaders of New York City’s charitable organizations have called her “inspired,” “inspiring,” and “one-of-a-kind.” Michael Strahan of the Super Bowl champion New York Giants playfully refers to her as “Charity Girl,” a moniker Cathleen happily endorses.
She is the founder and president of Athletes for Charity—an organization that was conceived and nurtured by the sheer force of Cathleen’s passionate convictions and philanthropic dreams. Working out of her one-bedroom apartment with few resources and a limited staff of volunteers, she amazes all those she touches with her ability to do so much for so many with so little.
What began five years ago with nothing more than Cathleen’s dreams has blossomed into one of New York’s most unique philanthropic organizations.
Athletes for Charity helps establish and support the philanthropic efforts of professional athletes, specifically helping to raise athletes’ awareness of and involvement with children in foster care and youth in foster care living with HIV. Toward that end, Athletes for Charity has identified and aligned itself with five nonprofit organizations in the New York City area dedicated to bettering the lives of children in foster care, from newborns to teens.
In addition to partnering with these New York-based organizations, Athletes for Charity has created a host of charitable activities from holiday toy drives, to football camps throughout the United States, to annual events such as “Bowl with an Athlete;” has established three charitable foundations for professional athletes; and has guided and coordinated the charitable efforts of more than 100 professional athletes, including many from the NFL, NBA and MLS.
Scores of athletes have benefited from Cathleen’s counsel—a list that reads like a Who’s Who roster from professional sports. Athletes like Ryan Sims of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; Orpheus Roye of the Cleveland Browns; Ovie Mughelli of the Atlanta Falcons; Osi Umenyiora of the New York Giants; Dhani Jones of the Cincinnati Bengals; Quentin Richardson of the New York Knicks; Smush Parker of the Los Angeles Clippers; and former Philadelphia Eagle Takeo Spikes.
Cathleen is helping athletes help children in need and, in doing so, the term “labor of love” never seemed more appropriate. Just as you can see the joy in her face when she hugs the children of Hale House, you can hear the joy in her voice when she talks about her role.
“I don’t consider what I do with Athletes for Charity ‘work,’” says Cathleen.
And, indeed, the depth of her devotion, dedication and drive is readily apparent.
Drawing no salary from Athletes for Charity, Cathleen devotes all of her weeknights (albeit very late weeknights), weekends and holidays—35 to 40 hours a week on average—to this enterprise. Weekdays, she holds a full-time position as Case Manager at Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossmann, a New York securities litigation firm.
A daunting schedule, perhaps, but one in which Cathleen revels. For it is the way in which she has been able to realize her lifelong dream—a dream that began to take shape while she was a law student at Pitt.
Ever committed to helping others, Cathleen worked with and mentored children at Pittsburgh’s Urban Youth Action while in law school.
And she encouraged others to do the same. Even professional athletes.
Fortuitously, as it turned out, she met a number of professional athletes during her years in Pittsburgh, namely Jerome Bettis, Carlos Emmons, and Orpheus Roye—at the time, all members of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Cathleen, a young law student, took it upon herself to encourage these athletes, whom she was meeting for the first time, to get involved with some of the charitable projects she was involved with in the Pittsburgh area. “I was in their ear—just as I would be whenever I met someone new—inviting them to get involved, to help those less fortunate, and make a difference in a child’s life,” remembers Cathleen. “And you know what? They did. Jerome, Carlos and Orpheus all followed through on my initial suggestion and got involved with various Pittsburgh-based charitable groups.”
Although she wasn’t cognizant of it at the time, at that moment, the protean outline of Athletes for Charity had begun to take shape.
The athletes couldn’t help but see Cathleen’s passion, conviction and undaunted dedication. To them, Cathleen was a one-woman repository for helping children in need. Soon, she started getting calls asking “How can I establish a football camp for underprivileged youth?” or “How do I go about setting up a charitable foundation?” Years later, she would call on the contacts she had made in Pittsburgh, specifically Carlos Emmons, and ask the seminal question: Would athletes turn to an organization for guidance and support in their philanthropic and volunteer efforts? When the answer was a resounding “yes,” Cathleen never looked back.
She researched youth organizations and causes in the New York City area to which the newly-formed Athletes for Charity could lend its support. She first chose Incarnation Children’s Center, a nursing facility for foster children afflicted with HIV who need around-the-clock nursing care. Many athletes supported her efforts to benefit the children of Incarnation Children’s Center during that first year.
Athletes for Charity eventually would partner with five New York City youth organizations, lending its support to Hale House, which helps youth in foster care ranging in age from newborns to age 5; Inwood House, which supports pregnant teens in foster care; Big Brothers Big Sisters, which provides mentoring programs for underprivileged youth; and Lutheran Social Services’ foster care programs, in addition to the Incarnation Children’s Center.
“Many athletes have identified children’s organizations or charitable causes they would like to support— many of which are in their own hometowns. And we help them achieve their personal charitable interests,” explains Cathleen. “Others lend their support to one or more of the five New York City initiatives we support directly via Athletes for Charity.”
Cathleen further explains, “We help athletes determine the level of philanthropic and volunteer activity they are most comfortable with. Some athletes want to volunteer their time, working directly with the children, while others are looking to establish charitable foundations.”
Athletes for Charity has helped Ryan Sims of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers create the Ryan Sims Foundation to benefit the fight against cancer. It has also helped create the Ovie Mughelli Project, a charitable foundation of Ovie Mughelli of the Atlanta Falcons. Unique among pro athlete foundations, it helps to educate underprivileged youth about environmental issues.
“I have watched others develop organizations to help nonprofits,” says Annie Murphy, Deputy Director of Hale House. “But Cathleen has done so in a way that is unquestionably unique, reaching out to athletes and organizations to form such powerful alliances.”
Indeed, Cathleen is helping dreams come true—for the athletes and for the children. And her own dreams are coming true as well. While Cathleen’s philanthropic dreams may have begun to take shape in some elemental way while still at Pitt Law, her dreams had their genesis decades before, in the form of the woman who was the most inspirational force in her life—her mother.
Helping those less fortunate was a commonplace occurrence in her childhood home. Cathleen witnessed the painstaking devotion with which her mother, a Haitian émigré, regularly assembled crates of nonperishable food, clothing and supplies to be shipped back to her homeland for distribution among the Haitian poor. Although not a woman of means, her mother felt blessed by a new life and new opportunities in the United States and felt it was her duty to share her blessings with fellow Haitians who were suffering from poverty and despair. She vowed never to forget them.
Her mother’s selfless and thoughtful acts resonated deeply within the young Cathleen. She saw in her mother a woman who sacrificed much to give others comfort and hope. “My mother gave me a most wonderful gift—the wonder and joy of helping others,” says Cathleen. “And it became an overwhelming passion of mine from a very early age.” It was a passion so deeply woven into the fabric of her life that by the time Cathleen reached high school, her dedication to public service was already exemplary.
She volunteered in soup kitchens, assisted with the planning of teen pregnancy prevention fairs, worked on local NAACP youth projects, and went on to win the B’nai B’rith award for her “outstanding record of service to school and community.”
Her college career at the State University of New York at Binghamton was no different, brimming with community service projects, awards and tributes. Over time, as she continued to work with the disadvantaged, poor, and sick, her dedication never dampened. It only deepened.
Cathleen reached the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and immediately immersed herself in an array of public service projects, looking for ways to help underprivileged youth. The string of awards and honors that followed was testament to her devotion.
She mentored youth through Urban Youth Action and Frick International Studies Academy and was instrumental in reinstating the Law School chapter of Amnesty International. She received the Coca-Cola Minority Public Service Fellowship, the Patrick Stewart Human Rights Scholarship, the World Federalist Association “Builders of a Better World” Scholarship, and the Pittsburgh NAACP Human Rights Scholarship.
During those same years, Cathleen’s interest in international affairs blossomed. She spent two consecutive summers abroad on scholarship, studying the legal position of women in Zimbabwe via a Pitt comparative law scholarship and studying post-apartheid conditions in South Africa. She left Pittsburgh, having received both her J.D. degree from the School of Law and a master’s of public and international affairs from the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA).
Cathleen was now poised to launch a career that blended her interests in international affairs and public service. She was within reach of a position as director of public affairs for a Washington, D.C., NGO.
But life would hand Cathleen a different fate. Cathleen turned her back on a promising career, returning to New York City out of love and a sense of duty, to care for her mother whose health was now failing.
Once in New York City, Cathleen took a case management position in the antitrust department of Shearman & Sterling. Yet, as Cathleen’s international and domestic travel increased, she was increasingly unavailable to her mother—whose condition had worsened.
And so Cathleen took yet another career turn. By 2003, she found her way to the position she holds today at Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossmann. Free from travel, Cathleen could reclaim her free time to do that which she felt called to do—realize her lifelong public service dreams and remain near her mother during her final years of life.
It had been a circuitous route, but by 2003, Cathleen was now on the road she was seemingly destined to travel. For in that year, Athletes for Charity was born, seeing Cathleen’s lifelong dream become a reality.
Through Athletes for Charity, Cathleen is, indeed, seeing the promise of a dream fulfilled. Today she is helping hundreds of athletes help thousands of children—children in crisis, children from shattered homes, and children living with HIV and other life-threatening illnesses. And public awareness of Athletes for Charity continues to grow as Cathleen extends the organization’s reach beyond New York and beyond the East Coast. In May of 2007, Cathleen presided over the NASDAQ closing bell — a tribute to the work of Athletes for Charity.
Accolades and tributes aside, for Cathleen, it all comes down to seeing the look of joy on a child’s face. Like her mother before her, Cathleen knows the joy of giving. And like her mother before her, that joy has been the inspirational guide through her entire life Says Cathleen, “If I can make one day just a little brighter for a child who is hurting, or if I can bring just a bit of sunshine into the life of a child who has been disavowed, then my efforts have brought about something worthwhile.”