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Benjamin S. Carson spends most of his time giving.
Born into poverty in Detroit, Carson's childhood was marked by a strong temper, low self-esteem and constant ridicule from classmates because of poor grades. But his mother, Sonya Carson, refused to accept that. Motivated by her strong faith, Sonya Carson raised her two sons alone -- demanding they read two books every week and submit reports to her.
She insisted that Ben persevere in school, and his grades soon improved. He later graduated from Yale University and the University of Michigan School of Medicine before joining the Johns Hopkins Children's Center as director of pediatric neurosurgery in 1984.
His worldwide recognition first came in 1987, with the successful separation of Siamese twins from Germany. This past July, he participated in the unsuccessful effort to separate the adult Bijani twins from Iran.
In 1994, Dr. Carson and his wife, Candy, began what is now the Carson Scholars Fund Inc., which recognizes high school students for academic and humanitarian achievement. The fund has awarded 1,040 scholarships. Last year, Dr. Carson co-founded the Benevolent Endowment Fund to help cover the medical expenses of uninsured and underinsured brain surgery patients. His service work was slowed last year after a bout with prostate cancer.
Known as the neurosurgeon with the "gifted hands," Dr. Carson serves on the boards of Kellogg Co. and Costco Wholesale Corp. He will be saluted Tuesday by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Maryland Inc., for his humanitarian efforts. Since its founding in 1952, the organization has mentored more than 30,000 children in the Baltimore region.
In his office at Hopkins -- surrounded by walls of honorary degrees, awards, stacks of journals and reports -- Dr. Carson discussed his passion: service.
Are you happy about being honored by Big Brothers Big Sisters?
I don't want to sound immodest, but recognition doesn't do a great deal for me, to be honest. I get way too much recognition as it is. I have 33 honorary doctorate degrees, citations from cities all over the country -- other places, as well -- and a zillion people are always trying to honor me.
But this honor is particularly important because it deals with children. This is what I've dedicated all my life to -- my professional career, as well as many of my extracurricular activities -- recognizing that they are our future. Any organization that deals with children, obviously, is going to be considerably higher on my agenda. Anything I can do to elevate the cause of children interests me.
You recognize that children are our future, and it depends on what kind of future you want to have. When you're old, what kind of people do you want taking care of you? You actually do have some input into that. If you are callous, then there's a good chance they will be callous, too. You have some influence, right now, in that.
You can live your life onto yourself, be selfish, put your feet up in your house, drive your nice BMW and not give a hoot about anyone else. But it will come back. You'll get the same thing.
Why do you give?
To me, giving is making yourself available. It's using the gifts and talents that God has given you to elevate other people -- mentally, physically and spiritually. And it also, in my case and in my wife's case, involves giving a lot of money.
How much money have you donated to various causes over the years?
Probably more than a million dollars, personally; through the foundation, quite a bit more.
And to those who say -- "You're supposed to give; you're Ben Carson" -- how do you respond?
I would say, "Where does it say that?" [chuckle]. I personally believe that to whom much is given, much is required -- but that's my own personal belief.
Nobody else has the right to say to me, "Because you have this much, you should give this much" -- or demonstrate the same mentality that Robin Hood had: "If you should have, then I should have." I don't believe in that. That's basically Communism.
I do believe in hard work, and I believe that people who do work hard should be rewarded. But I also believe that people who do have an opportunity to accumulate wealth in this wonderful society should feel a reason to maintain those channels through which other people can do the same thing.
Is that the rationale behind the Carson Scholars Fund?
Yes. That also would be the thinking behind my support of the Big Brothers Big Sisters, which teaches young people the fundamentals of living in this society, values and principles of achievement.
A critical component of the Scholars program is community service. Why?
We put that in there because there are an awful lot of very smart people out there who did not do very good things. Those are not the kinds of people we're trying to develop.
We need to emphasize the extreme importance of thinking of others. Could you imagine what kind of society we would have if everybody thought of others? Not only would it be a much more pleasant place, but people would be much happier.
Do you see much philanthropy by the corporations on whose boards you sit?
I see a substantial amount, even in this economy. I'm the chairman of the Social Responsibilty Committee for Kellogg Company. We spend a lot of time talking about how can you get the most bang for the buck, where can you do the most good and where can you have the longest-term effect. Costco just made a huge contribution to start the Carson Scholars in Seattle.
It is a topic of discussion -- and, yes, there is a lot of pressure on companies to return earnings per share -- but one of the things we talk about is that it makes good business sense to be a responsible member of the community. Sometimes, that means giving, helping and sharing.
How do you encourage this approach?
It's very easy in the corporate world to get caught up in the rat race: [snapping fingers] What do I need to do to get a promotion? How can we meet our targets this quarter, because Wall Street will punish us if we don't? They will, there's no question about it [chuckle]. I've come to understand that, big time.
That is required [social responsibility], and a lot of corporations will not take the time to do it. That's how you wind up with the Enrons of the world, the WorldComs -- people who totally become self-serving.
What can you do about it?
The only way to get around that is to have a serious corporate responsibility committee. If your company doesn't have one, then establish one. Everybody needs to participate, and it must have a serious agenda.
It deals not only with your external relationships, but with your internal ones: It deals with your diversity issues. It deals with promotional issues. It deals with educational packages available to your employees. It provides a mechanism for grievances to be brought before the corporate board.
All of those things are good for a company. In the long run, they make a company considerably stronger.
How much money is needed to get the Benevolent Endowment Network Fund started?
Before we start giving out grants, we need about $20 million. We'd use the interest to take care of the patients.
What else do you hope to do with this organization?
I believe that this is the ultimate solution for our entire nation. I've made that point to a number of Congressional leaders, as well as at the White House. They are excited about it, and we're raising money right now.
Just think about it: One-seventh of our economy is related to medicine. If we were smart enough to put 10 percent of that away each year, for 10 to 15 years, we'd be talking about a base of $3 trillion.
Imagine what you could do with the interest on that: You could take care of the 40 million people who have no insurance -- and a lot more than that.
But here's the real key: If you continue that support for another 10 to 15 years, you're talking about a corpus that's big enough to have a huge impact -- and perhaps we can start talking about what everybody's been talking about: free health care. It won't really be free, but it'll be paid for.
This can work?
If we don't do it this way, we're going to fall off the cliff. We're going to keep throwing good money after bad money. It's the same money, but instead of creating an endowment and perpetuating it, we're going to fall into this never-ending pit of spiraling, endless health-care costs.
How close are you to your fund-raising goal?
We're just starting, but it's just under $1 million.
When it comes to philanthropy, some might say: "Rich people have money to give; poor people don't, and those in the middle are squeezed so much that it's tough to give." How do you give as a result?
It's very important that you have some principles, because, otherwise, you're not going to have any impact. There are so many worthy organizations. You can give $1 to each of them and have no impact -- or you can give $50,000 here or $100,000 there and have a big impact. That's the philosophy my wife and I have: Let's target some areas where we know we can have a huge impact, and let's put our energies there.
That's not to say that we don't get hundreds of thousands of requests from everybody. Some will just blow your socks off. Others are heart-wrenching. I don't have time to read them all.
Last week, someone who thought he was a very good student felt that I should pay for his college education because he would become a great physician and be able to give back a lot to the community. That's not at all an unusual request.
Does "giving" always mean money?
There are a lot of other things you can give: In-kind donations, people have to pay enormous amounts of money for certain things.
There's a company out there who's making a certain type of machine and might say, "This is what we do. We produce these type of machines, and I want to find a worthy organization. We're producing 18,000 of them; we're going to give three of them away!" I would love to see that.
But people get caught up in
The almighty dollar [laughs]. I have yet to find anybody who was made happy by money. They might think they're happy for a little while, very happy
Money doesn't provide happiness. I know some of the wealthiest people in the world, and money doesn't make them happy. No way.
Then what makes them happy?
The only ones I've found who have achieved any level of happiness have had to find causes. They have to find ways to empower other people. That's what really brings them joy.
Just think about it: If you have all the money in the world, can you imagine how boring life would be? Because, all of a sudden, nothing's very interesting to you anymore because you can buy it. When you can buy everything, it's not very interesting [chuckle]. Things are only interesting when you can't have them.
In the sense of
They become boring after you've bought them. When you can buy all the boats, all the cars, and all the houses and all the fancy clothes and accoutrements, they lose their appeal very quickly. Then, you start striving, searching, seeking.
When you see a lot of people who, for instance, inherit wealth and quit their jobs. They're not very happy, either.
Because people think life is solved now -- life's going to be wonderful -- because I have money. And then, when you come to the conclusion that it doesn't even come close to solving the problem, it's pretty depressing.
Can someone give so much that it hurts?
Probably. My wife says I'm like that [laughs]. She says I'm giving to a fault. That probably is true.
I did come to understand that a little bit more last summer, when I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. I realized that I was short-changing my job, short-changing my family, because I was out trying to solve everybody else's problems -- 24-7.
And, of course, if I do that to the extent that I completely use myself up, then I won't be able to do much for anybody. I do have to balance that out.
How are you doing that?
I have to give myself concrete goals, such as going home at 6:15 or 6:30; unless there is a dire, life-or-death emergency, go home [chuckle]! That's one way to look at it.
Philanthropically, is the glass half-full or half-empty?
From the perspective of being able to give and to share, the glass is more than half full. It is such a wonderful privilege to be in a position to do that particularly knowing where I came from and what life was like .
When I think about the opportunities I've had -- and I recognize how much God has given me, I cannot even begin to sit back on my rear end and put my feet up without trying to make sure that other people get that same opportunity.
Does your future entail much giving?
My goals for the future are to really have a Carson Scholar in every school in the United States. I want every 4th- and 5th-grader to recognize that they can be on the same kind of pedestal as the all-star basketball player or wrestler through superior academic performance and humanitarian efforts.
My secondary goal is to achieve the situation where people in the medical profession can just do what they were trained to do -- that is, take care of patients -- instead of being caught up in all this bureaucratic, horrible insurance stuff that torments people.
If we get around to those two things, I will be thrilled.
Are these your main reasons for giving?
They are. That's a big chunk right there. I just wish I had more time [voice trails off]. If I could just ever figure out a way to carve out more time