In our coverage of professional athlete philanthropy, we have followed a range of personalities from the NFL, NBA and other leagues who have engaged in all manner of giving. Their philanthropy is fueled by stratospheric income among gamers, coming from both salaries and sponsorship deals. Some athletes start with charity while they are still active on the field or on the court. Others await retirement. Take the example of Robert Golden, born in 1990 in the Central Valley of California. Golden played ball at Edison High School in Fresno and then at the University of Arizona, where he graduated. He then played seven years in the NFL, almost entirely with the Pittsburgh Steelers, before retiring in 2018.
As Golden told me in a recent interview, he began to engage in issues that matter to him during his playing days, and has intensified since his retirement. The centerpiece of his work is Gold Charter Academy in Fresno, an environmentally focused school operating in partnership with the Chaffee Fresno Zoo. He co-founded and is president of the academy, which opened in August. Golden Charter serves more than 200 students, who visit the zoo for classroom lessons, as well as the lakes and outdoor spaces nearby.
During our conversation, I learned why he launched this unique charter, what his future plans are for the school and what he observes among his fellow athletes engaged in philanthropy.
From the grill to the classroom
Born and raised in a part of California known for its annual Raisin Parade, Fresno still holds an important place for the footballer. Golden calls its western Fresno neighborhood one of the “toughest in the region,” but credits education and sports for keeping it on a solid footing. During the NFL days, he would come back to town to host free football clinics, health and fitness classes, diabetes awareness walks, and to set up programs for the Fresno Unified School District, of which it is a product.
“It has always been very close to who I am as a person, to be able to be a source of inspiration for children,” he explains.
Golden also took on leadership roles during his time with the Steelers. He was a player development representative, helping players who had not yet graduated to return to school during the offseason. The role also helped young athletes learn to budget their finances and make sound decisions on and off the field.
After a brief stint with the Kansas City Chiefs, Golden retired to focus his business elsewhere. And with more bandwidth, stepping up its advocacy work for children through education was a natural outgrowth.
On August 9, Golden opened the Golden Charter Academy, which uses environmental education strategies and experiences to provide skills in language arts, math, science and humanities. The tuition-free school is unique, focusing on environmental education in partnership with a zoo.
The power of environmental education
Funding for environmental education is only part of overall environmental funding. Environmental Grantmakers Association and other research have found that funding environmental education remains at only 4 to 5% global environmental funding. Yet this research also reveals the immense value of these programs.
A K-12 environmental education program, Learning Tree, observed benefits, including encouraging healthy lifestyles and improving critical and creative thinking skills. Experts at Stanford University sifted through the academic literature and analyzed 119 peer-reviewed studies published over two decades that measured the impacts of environmental education for K-12 students and arrived at similar conclusions.
Golden’s own understanding of the value of the natural world deepened during his playing days. “One of the things I always did just to clear my mind living in Arizona throughout my career was hiking and going out. It has always been something that attracted me, but I really started learning more about environmental education when I started school, ”he tells me.
A key part of the Golden Charter Academy is fostering hands-on learning experiences. By fostering environmental literacy, students have the tools to improve the world around them, creating “little advocates,” as Golden calls them.
He also hopes to open a model that has young people in underserved areas aspiring to long-term careers in entertainment and sports. “They want to be artists, because that’s what they see. But they rarely learn what a biologist does, what an engineer does, ”says Golden.
He sees their partnership with the Fresno Chaffee Zoo as an opportunity to expose students to a range of paths, calling the zoo a kind of “small town” in itself. “You have chefs who have to cook. You have engineers. You have vets… all the people who keep the zoo alive, ”Golden says.
“Sense of school” and athlete philanthropy
In times of pandemic, school has tapped into place-based education, which means school can take place in many settings, including physical and virtual spaces. Plus, when Golden Charter Academy students arrive at the zoo, it’s not like they’re on a school trip; they are rather in class. In the heart of the Central Valley, the school is also close to the Pacific to the west and Yosemite National Park to the north and east.
In addition to Golden’s own funds, the Golden Charter Academy is a state-funded public school. The school has applied for grants and is also engaged in fundraising.
Golden says every athlete has a “what then” moment when their athletic career comes to an end and he hopes to be a role model for what players might do when they turn the page. “I just want to let them know that you created this platform for yourself by being an athlete. But life is so much bigger than sport, ”he says.
It has already attracted other top athletes from the region. Born in a few towns in Clovis, Calif., Minnesota, Vikings All-Pro linebacker Eric Kendricks, nominated for 2020 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year, donated the league’s $ 40,000 to the Golden Charter Academy. And former Fresno-born NBA swingman Quincy Pondexter also supported the academy.
Overall, Golden is thrilled that his peers and teammates are collaborating on philanthropy and believes this is how they can make a real impact in the communities where they started.
Away from school, Golden continues to take an annual diabetes walk, having lost his father to illness a few years ago. Meanwhile, Golden’s Believe and Achieve Camp runs a football clinic at Fresno State University, mixing more than 700 kids with around 25 NFL players. Golden says it’s one of the biggest camps in California.
Ultimately, however, Golden is laser focused on his school. Over the next few years, he hopes to have a state-of-the-art facility built next to the zoo to make his assets even more accessible. “It’s my harvest right there. It’s my joy, and that’s why I do it. And I am delighted to continue to do this work for sure.