Joakim Noah and friends

Bulls' Noah making an impact on and off the court

Joakim Noah, along with his mother Cecilia Rodhe, and his sister, Yelena, were on hand recently at a West Side community center to upgrade its art and game rooms as part of the Noah’s Arc Foundation’s ongoing efforts

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By Adam Fluck | 12.13.2012

Long before he started having an impact on the basketball court, Bulls center Joakim Noah was determined to make a difference off of it.

Just ask his mother, Cecilia Rodhe, who can tell you all about a son that was very sensitive to injustice at a young age. For example, there was more than one occasion when she learned that Joakim was involved in a fight while attending grade school. But rather then be upset and discipline him for his actions, she understood once he shared his side of the story.

“He would go out on the playground and fight fights that were not his own if something was happening that he felt was unfair,” recalls Cecilia. “It was something in him, and he’s always had a natural sense of what is good and bad.”

It wasn’t just other human beings that Joakim grew up protecting. Cecilia, a sculptor originally from Sweden, taught Joakim and his younger sister, Yelena, to respect nature. They were instructed never to litter and to treat the outdoors as if it were God’s living room. There was one day when Joakim was riding in the car with his mother and noticed some older kids pulling on tree branches. Only four years old at the time, he insisted on pulling over so he could tell them to stop.

To better understand Joakim Noah is to realize that if he sees a wrong, he wants to make it right. And as basketball fans know, he can’t do anything without his trademark fiery passion and genuinely sincere effort.

Yelena credits a big part of that to their upbringing, the job that their parents did in making them socially aware and instilling a sense of social justice inside of them when they were most impressionable.

“We both grew up very aware of global issues having lived a diverse life when we were younger,” explained Yelena. “My brother always wanted to do something positive and give back. It sounds cliché, but even before basketball, that’s how he felt. So once he realized he was blessed with a beautiful gift and the privilege of being a professional athlete, it came as a no-brainer that he would do this sort of thing. His heart and his soul are in it. That’s why he comes [to events in the community]; it’s not just to show his face. He’s here because he wants to be here for the kids.”

Quite simply, it’s easy for someone to say they want to make a difference, but Joakim has proven he’s willing to follow up on those promises time and time again. And that’s exactly where Noah’s Arc Foundation comes in.

Joakim Noah

“What I’m most proud of is to see the truth and purity of Joakim’s commitment to this kind of work,” said Cecilia. “He doesn’t like to have the cameras around. He just wants to be with the kids.”

The foundation, which is dedicated to helping children develop a stronger sense of self, combines two areas which have surrounded and shaped Joakim since a young age: art, with his mother’s background, influence, and abilities; and sports, with his father, Yannick, being a former professional tennis player and, of course, Joakim’s success in basketball.

“When we decided to create a foundation, it was a natural that we would use what we have,” Cecilia explained. “My kids were brought up in an artist’s studio around poets, writers, painters and musicians. So they are very used to being around creative people who create things from nothing. They were not brought up around bankers or lawyers; this was very different. And, of course, their father Yannick was a professional athlete. So those were the aspects that have shaped their lives.”

Last week, Noah and his foundation, with support from the Bulls, Levy Restaurants and DiGiorno Pizza, hosted a holiday party for the children at the Major Adams Community Center, located just a couple blocks from the United Center. The party, complete with pizza and Christmas presents, not only celebrated the holiday season, but also the partnership recently established between Noah’s Arc Foundation and Major Adams.

At the event, Joakim, Cecilia and Yelena unveiled the center's newly redecorated art and game rooms with members of the Bulls staff, including President and COO Michael Reinsdorf and his wife Nancy, who serves as President of Chicago Bulls Charities, also in attendance.

“Basketball is so up and down,” said Joakim. “When we win, I’m happy, and when we lose, I’m really down. Being able to do this and come to a place like this on occasion gives me sanity. It makes me happy seeing we’re able to help and make a difference. So much is given to us as basketball players. For us to help the kids with things like supplies or a day like this where they can enjoy some pizza and have a safe place to hang out is what it’s all about.”

Aside from the team’s own staff and one other reporter, the event at Major Adams lacked the usual media presence. But that’s exactly how Noah likes it.

“What I’m most proud of is to see the truth and purity of Joakim’s commitment to this kind of work,” said Cecilia. “He doesn’t like to have the cameras around. He just wants to be with the kids.”

As his sister, Yelena, pointed out, stopping by Major Adams on any given afternoon might only consume an hour or two out of one’s day. But when it’s someone like Joakim who is visiting and interacting with the children, the impact that is made is substantial, and the memories that are created will last much longer.

“To see the reaction of the kids and the joy that they have is what makes days like this a success,” said Yelena. “Watching my brother interact and give them that one-on-one conversation with all the kids circled around him are moments that mean a lot.”

Last week’s visit to Major Adams wasn’t Joakim’s first, nor will it be his last. Among the reasons he likes that particular community center is because it’s so close to the United Center, thus making it all the more convenient to stop by.

Joakim Noah

"When I come here, it gives me strength," said Joakim of visiting Major Adams. "It makes me want to go out and play for [the kids]."

“When I come here, it gives me strength,” said Joakim. “It makes me want to go out and play for them. This neighborhood is home to these kids, so they’re all fans. But they’re in a city where they also need a lot of help. To be able to provide them with things to do after school and give them a little extra structure is great. I hope that it’s extra motivation for them to work hard and do the right thing.”

Joakim, Cecilia and Yelena are excited because in Major Adams, they have created a strong base location for Noah’s Arc to grow and eventually expand its reach. As for its vision for the future, they simply want to reach as many kids as they can. Perhaps someday, Noah’s Arc Foundation will have a center of its own. But for now, they’ll pour their efforts into the children at Major Adams with a goal of reaching as many as they can.

“We have many plans and I’m especially excited about the fact that now we have a place to develop our program even more,” said Cecilia. “The stone has been positioned. We’re building a relationship with these kids, ideally not for a week, but for the next ten years. They’re at the perfect age for us to expose them to a whole new way of learning about themselves and maximizing their personalities throughout their journey.”

Yelena agreed, saying, “We have a lot of long-terms goals and they aren’t just limited to Chicago or even America as we hope to do some things in Africa. But working [at Major Adams Community Center] has been a beautiful start. We’ve gotten to know so many of the kids on a first name basis and recognize everyone when we come back. The goal is to definitely have an ongoing relationship with this place and the children. The concept of upgrading and refurbishing the rooms has been great, but now we want to have a more hands on approach, perhaps tutoring and focusing on different educational aspects.”

Cecilia likes to call afternoons like the one at Major Adams days of expression, which is fitting given Joakim’s personal involvement and the young lives he touches through the combination of sports and arts.

“The philosophy behind all of this is to bring consciousness and awareness through self-expression,” said Cecilia. “Whether you do that as an artist or as a member of a team, it’s about being selfless and working toward a common goal. In school, we learn how to read and write, but we have no one who teaches us about our feelings, how to react and how to express them. It’s emotional intelligence which shapes how the journeys in our lives are going to be.”

This past summer, Joakim and Noah’s Arc Foundation partnered with One Hope United to bring 30 at-risk youths to his house where they hung out, played basketball, ate sandwiches and sat around a campfire. Whether it’s in his own backyard or the backyard of the building in which his team plays, Noah’s commitment to giving back is real.

“I play basketball for a living, but this grounds me being able to do things like this and hang out with the kids once in awhile,” said Joakim. “I feel very lucky and very privileged to be able to do things like this. The Bulls are an organization that really stands behind its players. When I told them that I wanted to do this at the center, they were 100 percent in. For me to be able to do this means a lot.”

Today, when kids at Major Adams Community Center stop by for a safe place to be after school to work on their latest project or play games with friends, they’ll do so in the presence of a snake mural which begins in the revamped game room and wraps around three of the walls and into a long hallway. Just to the right of the head of the snake, a concept created by Cecilia with participation of the Major Adams children, is a plaque that bears the following inscription:

A beacon of hope through ancient times, the snake has always symbolized the source of life.

Our choice in using the imagery of the snake resides in its duality.

While it represents danger and inspires fear, simultaneously, its venom contains the most healing properties on the planet.

Metaphorically, this duality embodies the choices we are confronted with on a daily basis.

Between good and evil, nurturing or destructive, right or wrong.

These are choices we all have to make on our journey.

With Joakim, Cecilia and Yelena in their lives, making the right decisions will be that much easier for the children of Major Adams Community Center.


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