The thought of a philanthropic future is not what lured Tina Charles to the computer as a sophomore at UConn. She just wanted to see what was going on in the world; nothing unusual about that. But something she saw would soon change the way she looked at a lot of things.
“I saw Jennifer Aniston wearing a shirt with a peace sign and a map of Africa on it,” Charles said. “So I did a search on [the shirt] and it came from an organization called OmniPeace.”
OmniPeace, a Los Angeles-based humanitarian fashion brand founded in 2007 by Mary Fanaro, desires to sell its merchandise to raise funds to address missions of compassion throughout the world. Since its inception, OmniPeace has donated nearly $1 million in an effort to thwart violence against African women and aid education for their children.
Four years later, after becoming the national player of the year at UConn and the WNBA’s rookie of the year in 2010 for the Connecticut Sun, Charles headed to California to visit a friend, former college player Jackie Gemelos. While there, she scheduled a meeting with Fanaro to learn more about OmniPeace, to ask what she could do to help.
“I became the first sports ambassador for OmniPeace,” Charles said. “I told her I wanted to build a school in Africa. She told me it would cost $32,000 to do it. I was all for it. Those people who really know me understand this is nothing out of the ordinary for me. I consider myself a very giving person. If anyone I care for needs anything, I always try to be there for them. I’m proud that I was able to do it.”
Having already built six schools in three African countries, the money from Charles helped kicked off in February the construction of a sixth in Mali, a land-locked country in western Africa. Located in the village of Ganale in Mali’s Sikasso region, the school is 2,861 square feet with three classrooms that can accommodate up to 150 elementary school children. It will also be used in the evenings for adult literacy classes.
“I am in awe of her basketball talent,” said Fanaro. “And I am impressed by her kind demeanor and genuine dedication to wanting to make a difference.”
Making the project even more appealing to Charles was that another group, buildOn, based in Stamford, builds the projects with the help of children from New York City that are brought to Africa to help with the construction. The organization has built over 400 schools worldwide, including 256 in Africa. All of its schools in Mali have agreed to fight rampant gender discrimination by enrolling equal numbers of girls and boys.
“Before Tina funded the school in the village of Ganale, students were learning in two temporary mud huts, with very little light and no ventilation,” said Jim Ziolkowski, Founder and CEO of buildOn. “The new school is built to last 100 years, which means it will provide education for generations of children, parents and grandparents.”
Charles has not been to Mali to see her school. But she has seen pictures of it, including those of the smiling children who will inhabit it.
“It brought tears to my eyes thinking that I was able to make an impact in other people’s lives,” Charles said. “If something good happens it that school, I know that they children will pass the word around to others in the community and it will grow from there. Now, I want to try and build a new school in Africa every year. I want to pass the word around about this great cause.”
Charles comes from a family with an inherent interest in education.
“My [maternal] grandmother was one of the first teachers in Kingston, Jamaica,” Charles said. “In fact, there is a school named after her, the Hollgate Academy. The was the key for me with this project.”
Ironically, the Sun’s first draft pick in 2012, 6-8 center Astan Dabo, was born in Mali and plays for its national team. Someday, Dabo may pair with Charles for one of the WNBA’s most formidable front lines.
Charles has not limited herself to building schools. She has donated athletic shoes to a school in Kingston to aid their soccer and netball teams.
Soon Charles will embark on another significant project, helping the 2012 Olympic team win gold in London along with her former UConn coach, Geno Auriemma, and five other former Huskies – Sue Bird, Asjha Jones, Swin Cash, Maya Moore and Diana Taurasi.
Still, she often thinks back to her formative days at UConn when the tough love of Auriemma and Chris Dailey, UConn’s associate head coach, forced her to grow up physically and emotionally.
“It’s what keeps me humble,” Charles said. “I think about working on a side basket with Chris Dailey needed to make 150 layups in a row without touching the rim. But I know the Olympics are going to be breathtaking for me. I admit I thought about the possibility of playing in them someday, but the fact that it’s in front of me now is unbelievable.
“It’s going to be incredible for me and so much fun, particularly because Coach Auriemma will be there. The fact that he impacted the lives of the six UConn players on the Olympic team will just be a unique thing.”