Attending the Starkey Hearing Foundation’s annual awards and fundraising gala in St. Paul at the urging of friend and fellow NFL receiver Larry Fitzgerald of the Arizona Cardinals, Jennings said what he witnessed was “jaw-dropping.”
It wasn’t just that former President Bill Clinton spoke or that music stars Reba McEntire and Garth Brooks performed or that more than $7 million was raised in a little over four hours. It was the impact he saw on video of Starkey’s work, providing hard-of-hearing children around the world with hearing aids that would change their lives forever.
“When I was actually able to see it for myself, I thought this was definitely something my wife and I want to be a part of,” Jennings said. “I remember texting her during the event and telling her, ‘We’re going on one of these missions. I don’t know when or where, but we’re going.’”
The when is now for Jennings and his wife Nicole, and the where is the African republic of Tanzania. They depart on Monday and upon arriving overseas they will be joined by roughly a dozen other professional athletes – including Fitzgerald – and a medical group from “Pros for Africa” to begin fitting as many as a couple thousand African children with hearing aids.
The pro athletes like Jennings aren’t just there for show, either. Jennings said they’ll be doing the hands-on work of fitting and testing the children for the proper hearing devices, working day and night for several consecutive days.
To say Jennings is excited about getting personally involved in the efforts he watched at that gala nine months ago would be an understatement. Having established his own charitable foundation in 2008, Jennings knows the work will be enlightening and emotional at the same time.
“To put a hearing aid in a kid’s ear when they haven’t been able to audibly connect or relate or have dialogue with their parents or siblings or whomever … and then clap a couple of times and see them jump and their face light up because they heard you … it’s all to change a life,” Jennings said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
The 10-day trip will also include additional humanitarian work in Kenya and Ethiopia with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), an organization Jennings got involved with late last year. In November, Jennings was one of 10 NFL stars to tape a public service announcement for USAID to raise awareness of the famine, war and drought in the Horn of Africa.
The USAID part of the trip will involve health, wellness and fitness work, Jennings said, helping to feed people as well as teaching youth and adults how to lead healthier lifestyles.
All in all, Jennings expects both missions that are part of this excursion to be life-changing for everyone involved, including for himself and Nicole.
“A lot of times you go on a trip like this with the mindset that you’re going to impact their lives, which you hope to do, but you never realize how much of an impact they might leave on you,” Jennings said.
“They’re going to look at us like, ‘Oh, my gosh, these are professional athletes,’ but I think we’re going to look at them and take back a greater appreciation of what we have, our family, material things … a greater overall appreciation of life itself.”