Sunday, February 23, 2014

Meeting a True "Survivor" -- Ethan Zohn

DALLAS, TEXAS -- During the first seven or eight seasons of the pioneering CBS reality series “Survivor”, I was an avid watcher of the show, as I eagerly awaited the next installment every Thursday night to find out how the castaways fared in their exotic locale, as they tried to obtain immunity, not get voted out of their tribe, and win the title of “Sole Survivor” and get $1 million for their troubles.

Ethan Zohn, the former professional soccer player who won that title in the show’s third season “Survivor: Africa” survived the harsh, primitive conditions in Kenya, and yet never received one vote against him.

“The real challenge of ‘Survivor’ was what I would do when I suddenly won the million dollars. I wanted to be the type of person who used his celebrity in order to make a difference to others,” said Zohn, who spoke at the annual International Convention of the B’nai Brith Youth Organization (BBYO) last week in Dallas, Texas (that's me above, pictured with Ethan in between sessions).

During the two one-hour sessions he conducted, Zohn entertained the audience of teens and adult staff with stories of his time as a contestant on “Survivor: Africa”, in which he admitted he wasn’t prepared for the loneliness and isolation of the desert of southeastern Africa, and was guided by two principles that assured his eventual victory: be selfless in a selfish game and be a member of the community.

Zohn also spoke about how he became a survivor of another type: his two successful battles against cancer, in particular Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, in which he had to endure 22 blasts of radiation treatments, four chemotherapy sessions, a new drug and a stem cell donation from his brother Lee, which helped to put his cancer in remission. “As a patient, it’s really hard to articulate what it is to be sick,” he admitted.

He also spoke about the charitable organization he founded with the $1 million he won from “Survivor”. It’s called Grassroots Soccer, and the inspiration came from a reward challenge he won with his tribe mate and alliance partner Lex, in which they went to a Kenyan village and Zohn ended up playing hackey sack with a group of children who were HIV patients at a local hospital (he ended up giving his hackey sack, which was his luxury item from the game, to one of the children).

“That was my ‘do something moment’, and from there, I decided to start this charity and help save lives,” he said. Based on that incident and his experience playing pro soccer in Zimbabwe, where bodies of HIV/AIDS victims are buried all over the streets, Grassroots Soccer trains pro soccer players from across Africa about HIV/AIDS, and in turn, through their soccer skills and what they learned from their training sessions, these players teach HIV/AIDS awareness to children across the continent, and hold charity soccer tournaments to benefit the cause.

“I was always taught to do the right thing, which is why I used the money I won on Survivor to help the disadvantaged in Africa and erase the stigma of HIV there, too,” said Zohn.