CHICAGO -- "Please join our efforts to let the children in Sichuan have a better future!" implored Chinese basketball icon Yao Ming in Chicago's Chinatown on Thursday night.
Standing truly tall with his head almost touching the ceiling, the 7-foot-6-inch Yao, now playing for Houston Rockets in the NBA, rallied an excited crowd of over 100 people at Lao Beijing Restaurant, where the Yao Ming Foundation held a successful fund-raising event to help those affected by the devastating earthquake last year in Sichuan, southwest China.
Over 50,000 U.S. dollars were raised on the spot, and more is expected, as the word is spread by the media and passionate attendees. All proceeds will support the Yao Ming Foundation's rebuilding efforts in Sichuan, which was hit by a magnitude-8.0 tremor on May 12, 2008.
Some 80,000 people died and more than 8,000 school rooms were destroyed in the disaster.
"It is very hard for me to put into words how difficult it is to see this kind of destruction," Yao told Xinhua at a press conference right before the fund-raising event. "When I was visiting Sichuan last September, I felt that the children are very brave and courageous to deal with such a disaster. We human beings are really tiny in front of the earthquake. We indeed have lots of work to do over there!"
As one of the most recognizable sports superstars in the world, Yao has been a great pride of Chinese, as evidenced by his bevy of fans. The second floor of the Lao Beijing restaurant was packed with people from Chicago and other states, who were eager to meet Yao, take pictures with him and donate to his foundation.
After shaking hands and saying hello to Yao, a beaming 79-year- old gray-haired donor named Meiyu Xie told Xinhua: "I am so happy that I can help children in Sichuan through the Yao Ming Foundation. I am a big fan of Yao Ming and I can trust his foundation whole-heartedly!"
Talking about how the Yao Ming Foundation was started, Yao said: "I have been working with China Youth Development Foundation for a long time to help young people in China. But I don't have a lot of time to do it myself."
"So it is good timing to start the foundation right after the earthquake. We are currently very focused on rebuilding schools in Sichuan and will possibly expand to support other youth programs in China and the U.S. in the future," he noted.
Stephanie Sandler, Senior Vice President at the Giving Back Fund, has been instrumental in organizing the Chicago fund-raising event. She told Xinhua: "we have been trying to work with Yao Ming since his rookie years. We knew back then what a great person he is and he always wants to give back. Right after the earthquake, we got a call from his agent that now is the time to start."
As a result, the Yao Ming Foundation, under the auspices of the Giving Back Fund, was established in June 2008 in response to the devastating earthquake in China. The foundation will help raise funds and awareness of children's wellness and welfare issues in China and the United States.
Sandler disclosed that, within less than a year, the foundation has raised nearly 3 million U.S. dollars in the United States, including a 2-million-dollar initial, personal contribution from Yao Ming himself.
"We have committed to building five schools in China, working with a sister foundation over there," said Sandler. "Big cities such as New York and Los Angeles are what we are thinking right now for the next fund-raising event."
Standing close by Yao's side at the event was a smiling, medium- sized Chinese man named Tony Hu, a well-known Chinese entrepreneur who owns five Chinese restaurants in the United States. He opened the door of one of his own restaurants -- the Lao Beijing -- to host this fundraising event.
Although just approximately two thirds the size of Yao, Hu has an equally big heart as the basketball star. The hospitable Hu was busy all night trying to make sure everything runs smoothly.
In fact, he has devoted every minute he could over the last couple of weeks to try to bring more people to this event. Some of them came out of town just for the fundraiser, according to Hu.
"I personally made over 100 phone calls to my friends to ask them to join Yao Ming tonight and contribute to this honorable cause!" Hu told Xinhua. "We could not determine the date until less than two weeks ago. Otherwise we could have gotten more donors."
Asked why he is so dedicated to helping the fundraising event, the Chicago restaurateur said passionately: "Because I am Chinese and I am from Sichuan. I was in Sichuan last October to help rebuild schools too. What I saw over there is really heart- breaking. They really need money there. It takes a long time to recover from such a disaster! A lot of donations have not materialized yet!"
Hu also mentioned Chicago's Sichuan Earthquake Relief Fund which was established right after the earthquake and has raised over one million dollars so far. "I am a big fan of Yao Ming. He is a good model for our overseas Chinese. I trust him and I hope we can join hands together to donate to the Yao Ming Foundation!" he added.
Xie Yunliang, deputy Chinese consul-general in Chicago, told Xinhua: "Yao Ming is very much loved by both Chinese and American people. He is such a compassionate person with a loving heart. His great contribution and strong spirit will not only help children in Sichuan but also encourage people over there to rebuild a better world. On behalf of the Chinese government, I would like to thank all the participants tonight for their help to people in Sichuan."
"Please trust me! I assure you that I have the ability to make sure each penny raised here will be used for the earthquake area. Please support my foundation and give me more strength to help more people in need," Yao promised to the cheering crowd at the end of the fund-raising event.