Most Americans know Bonnie Blair as one of the most decorated Olympic speedskaters of all time, and most Milwaukeeans know her as one of our city’s most famous residents. This summer, Blair channeled her fame for good, taking on a new role as the spokesperson for Catholic Relief Services.
"I’ve done some other charity work around the community and in various ways, but this one kind of, I think, really tugged at my heart a little bit," Blair told OnMilwaukee.com.
"A lot of people are more familiar with me skating and the success that I had in the sport of speedskating, which really took me all over the world. I think overall I might have traveled to about 16 or 17 different countries. So I saw a lot, and I think with that, when you come back home, you really appreciate what you have."
Catholic Relief Services (CRS) is the official overseas humanitarian agency of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The organization focuses on helping underprivileged communities abroad achieve self-sufficiency and helps to develop agriculture, schools, housing, water and sanitation. Blair learned about the organization, which is active in over 100 countries on five continents, through a mutual friend.
"The thing that I like most about CRS is ... the whole idea behind it is really to teach the people and give them the tools to make things more self-sustaining," said Blair.
"Let’s say some place needs water and you just give them water, and when they run out of it – okay, your good deed is done. (CRS) teaches them how to dig a well so they’ll have water forever."
She says that she views her partnership with CRS as a natural extension of her role as a mother to kids Grant, 15, and Blair, 13.
"Once I became a mom, a lot of those things even became more hitting home for me... not only do I appreciate what I have, but I’m glad that I can pass on to my kids a good life and a great way to live," she said.
Though Blair herself is Catholic, she says that one of the things she likes about CRS is its non denominational appeal.
"Even if I was of a different religion, it still makes sense (to be involved)," she said. "It’s one of those things that you could kind of come from anywhere and this whole organization makes sense. Granted, my life with my kids doesn’t always allow me to go to church on a regular basis, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t come from a good place and have a good heart and good values. Your religion can kind of go in a lot of different ways."
Blair has been keeping busy promoting the mission of CRS through media interviews, radio spots and on billboards all over town (you may have seen her ad on the billboard by the Pettit Center – a fitting location for the speedskater). On Monday, she will appear with "7th Heaven" actress Catherine Hicks at a special reception at the Wisconsin Club, 900 W. Wisconsin Ave. CRS President and CEO Dr. Carolyn Woo and Archbishop Jerome Listecki will also be in attendance.
"I’m really looking forward to meeting her," said Blair of her fellow spokesperson. "We’ve kind of jumped into the partnership full-force, trying to create a little bit more awareness, getting people a little bit more in tune with the charity, and so far I think it’s working. I’ve heard a lot of people who have heard the radio ads...we’re starting to make a difference and I hope we can build upon that."
Along with her charity work, Blair also keeps busy with motivational speaking engagements and working with sponsors like BP and Liberty Mutual in anticipation of the upcoming 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
"And, of course, I’m the number one taxi driver with my kids," she laughed. "They definitely keep me busy and running."
For more information on CRS and how you can help their humanitarian mission, visit crswi.org.
Colleen Jurkiewicz is a Milwaukee native with a degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and she loves having a job where she learns something new about the Cream City every day. Her previous incarnations have included stints as a waitress, a barista, a writing tutor, a medical transcriptionist, a freelance journalist, and now this lovely gig at the best online magazine in Milwaukee.