Expanding Horizons

Expanding Horizons

When Tanya Rodriguez was in high school, a European trip with her mother and aunt impressed her so much that she vowed to “give another child the same opportunity.” Now, she and her husband, Atlanta radio personality Frank Rodriguez, known by listeners as Frank Ski, are making good on that promise–and more. Italy, the Amazon rainforest, and the Galapagos Islands are just a few of the global destinations the Rodriguezes take kids to through their altruistic labor of love, the Frank Ski Kids Foundation (www.frankskikids.org).

Throughout his more than 25-year career in radio, the philanthropic-minded Ski would find himself rubbing elbows with key influencers in entertainment and media. The 47-year-old aggressively sought to put those connections to work. “I wondered if I could encourage more celebrities to give back if they knew I would put the money where it needed to go,” he recalls. The answer was a resounding ‘yes,’ so the couple took to raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to expose hundreds of juveniles to science, technology, athletics, and the arts.

Each trip is preceded by a contest that allows children to showcase their skills in their chosen areas of interest. The contestants are then narrowed down to a field of 20 and judged by national and local experts and celebrities. And everyone wins. Ten winners are then selected to travel with the foundation, while the remaining 10 contestants engage with local professionals in their field of interest.

The foundation’s biggest fundraiser is an annual Celebrity Wine Tasting and Auction hosted at the couple’s Atlanta-area home. The event brings together celebrities and notables from all walks of life. “One of my favorite memories was seeing Bernice King [daughter of the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.] have a conversation with hip-hop artist Young Jeezy,” Frank recalls. “We raised more than $200,000 at this year’s event.” Local businesses and national companies such as State Farm and Ford Motor Co. have also sponsored activities, with some business leaders even coming onboard to mentor the kids, adds the foundation’s co-founder and chairman. Tanya, a co-founder, works at the foundation full time as its president. Married for 16 years, the two have spearheaded the organization’s efforts since its launch in 2000.

Through the foundation, the Rodriguezes–who have four children of their own–work to expose kids to new places and experiences. Science- and technology-related activities have included a six-day Space Camp trip at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, as well as a trip to explore the ecological wonders of the Amazon. Students interested in art have learned about potential careers from Atlanta-area advertising firms and spent a week studying masterpieces such as Michelangelo’s sculpture David in Florence, Italy. The foundation’s premier sporting event is the Annual Youth Bowl, in which student athletes compete in football while learning leadership and team building skills. The Youth Bowl is comprised of two exhibition teams in addition to six competitive teams and cheerleading squads. Each team has approximately 20 members. The cheerleading squads have approximately 10 to 15 members.

Giving kids their first glimpse of a foreign country or showing them what it takes to be an astronaut or artist is a short-term goal that can have long-term results. “If your parents were lawyers or even your parents’ friends were lawyers, chances are you could see yourself doing it because you’ve been exposed to that all your life,” says Frank, who notes most young people may not have professional examples like these. “When it comes to science and technology jobs, we want the kids to say ‘This is something I can do.’ And we’re now seeing a lot of our kids getting accepted into colleges and picking professions related to whatever they did on our trips.”

Program participants are also groomed to be comfortable interacting with sponsors and others who hold the key to future opportunities. For example, after a sojourn to the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galapagos Islands in 2007, the Environmental Protection Agency invited participants to speak on environmental issues. The two students with the highest scores were chosen to represent the foundation and speak in front of the EPA about their experiences in the Galapagos Islands.

Many of the relationships the couple built with the kids transcend the foundation’s programs. When a participant in the Youth Bowl needed surgery for a heart ailment, “His mother waited outside the radio station for me because they’d found a hospital that would do the surgery across the country but they didn’t have the money,” says Frank, who immediately helped raise funds. Other success stories include that of a 15-year-old student who has been commissioned to produce several pieces of his own artwork after going on the art trip to Florence and selling pieces at the annual wine tasting fundraiser; and news that past program participants are being accepted to colleges, some on full academic and athletic scholarships, Frank adds.

Looking back, that initial promise the now 44-year-old Tanya made to herself after her first trip abroad has developed into so much more. “It is very rewarding,” says Tanya about how the foundation has been a true benefit to her and Frank just as much as it has been for its young participants. “We feel like the proud parents of countless kids.”