Millionaire philanthropist urges crowd in Aspen to get involved | AspenTimes.com
Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

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Millionaire philanthropist urges crowd in Aspen to get involved

ASPEN – When a former member of the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest people in America makes a public appearance in a place like Aspen – especially a man who has given away more than $800 million to various philanthropic causes – people are bound to turn out to hear him speak.

Such was the case at Wednesday’s Aspen Business Luncheon at the Sky Hotel, where more than 100 people crammed into a small dining room to hear T. Denny Sanford, 76. He’s the chairman and CEO of South Dakota-based United National Corp., the holding company for subprime credit-card providers First Premier Bank and Premier Bankcard.

His net worth is estimated in excess of $400 million. But Sanford spoke of neither high finance nor his critics, who have suggested that his companies prey on individuals and families suffering from dire financial circumstances.

Instead, he concentrated his remarks on the many charities and projects in which he is involved. He encouraged the crowd to give time, energy and money to “causes that move your heart and soul” and discussed a few of his more recent initiatives.

Sanford said that many years ago, an old black preacher gave him a statement that he’ll never forget and which he often repeats.

“He said, ‘Be giving while you’re living so you’re knowing where it’s going.’ It’s as simple as that, and it makes sense,” Sanford said.

Much of his talk focused on children’s issues, especially those related to health and education.

He called obesity a fast-growing epidemic that’s becoming a pandemic.

“Statistics indicate that one-third of all children are obese and that by 2025, possibly 60 percent will be obese,” Sanford said. “You know what that leads to all sorts of health issues, particularly Type 2 diabetes.”

Sanford said he created a program in conjunction with the Internet site WebMD that provides information to youths about the benefits of healthy eating and exercise in an interactive and friendly way. On the WebMD site, the links are labeled “Fit Jr.,” “Fit Kids” and “Fit Teen.”

“They can pull up WebMD on their computers and play games that teach them about diet and nutrition and exercise,” he said. “The program is off and running. Doctors and medical professionals are buying into it, and it doesn’t cost anybody anything.”

Sanford also spoke about his efforts to battle breast cancer. In 2009, he provided $100 million toward the creation of a foundation devoted to research of the disease. He said he wanted to honor his mother, Edith Sanford, who died of breast cancer when he was 4.

“We have initiated an entirely new type of breast-cancer-research program,” he said. “We have the largest biobank of blood samples from breast cancer survivors and patients around the country.”

Strides in the field of education are just as important to Sanford, he suggested. He spoke of his admiration for Teach for America, a program in which students seeking to become instructors commit to teach for two years in U.S. locations with high poverty levels.

Nine months ago, Sanford helped to develop a program at Arizona State University, which he said has more than 5,000 teaching students – the most of any college in the nation.

The program seeks to inspire teaching students as well as provide them with the skills to inspire their students after graduation.

“We’re developing a model to get inspiration into the teachers’ schools as opposed to just having them learn the curriculum,” he said.

Also at Arizona State, a program has been developed with Sanford’s assistance to teach young children about differences between males and females. He said he got the idea for the program, which is being implemented in several Arizona schools, by reading John Gray’s best-selling self-help book, “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.”

“It is designed to ultimately reduce the number of (divorces) of males and females,” said Sanford.

He said he met with Gray and suggested that he take a look at male-female schisms in a different way, focusing on youths, but Gray was unable to devote time to the subject.

“I said, ‘You’re trying to piecemeal couples back together, and you’ve done a better job than anyone I’ve ever met of explaining that men and women are wired differently. But what about kids? Let’s develop a program for kids.’ For several reasons, he couldn’t do it,” Sanford said.

“So I told Arizona State about it, and they said they’d pick this up,” he continued. “Now we have testing in 15 different schools in Arizona to resolve to have a better understanding between males and females. It’s a gender consideration, and it has nothing to do with sex. And it will only be taught at the preschool level on up to adolescence.”

Sanford also gave a plug to one of his favorite charities, the Roundup River Ranch, north of Dotsero, Colo. It’s a free camp for children with chronic or life-threatening illnesses and is affiliated with the Hole in the Wall camps that actor Paul Newman founded before his death.

“I was there a few weeks ago,” he said. “The kids were all suffering from the same kinds of diseases, which allows them to share with each other. You wouldn’t believe how happy they looked, to be experiencing the joys of camp life.”

asalvail@aspentimes.com