When Ray Charles died on June 10, 2004, he left behind not only a treasury of American music, but the resources to help the less fortunate, through the work of the Ray Charles Foundation. The charity launched in 1986 as a corporation called the Robinson Foundation for Hearing Disorders, and its mission was to fund hearing implants for individuals with hearing disabilities.
Under the leadership of president Valerie Ervin, a longtime member of Charles' team, the foundation has evolved. It now focuses on not only hearing disorders but, according to its mission statement, "the empowerment of young people through … [the] support of education institutions and nonprofit education programs."
Although Charles was blind since the age of 7, he felt his lack of sight wasn't a handicap. Instead, he believed the inability to hear-especially, to hear music-was more of a hardship. So Charles began his philanthropy by anonymously funding cochlear implants for hearing-impaired individuals who couldn't afford the operation. Only rarely did he meet with the people whose lives he changed with his generosity.
"I was there to witness a patient as young as 3 years old and another as old as about 80," Ervin recalls. "But one of the most special moments was when I had the great pleasure of witnessing a young girl, maybe 4 or 5 years old, who was born deaf. Mr. Charles helped with the transplant, and when she was able to hear, they brought her to the office. She didn't speak English but she drew a picture, and it brought such immense joy to Mr. Charles' heart to be able to provide that kind of service."
The purpose of the foundation expanded as years passed. In 1996, Charles began donating not just to traditionally black universities, but educational facilities across the globe-as long as there were people in need of a scholarship or any other monetary push to help them attend school. Since then, Ervin estimates Charles has donated about $20 million, both before and since the creation of the Ray Charles Foundation.
"He was very quiet about [his donations]," Ervin says. "When you're giving, it's not about the notoriety. That's why no one was familiar with the foundation. We gave in silence, not to make a big hoopla about it. That's not what it was about."
After Charles' death, however, Ervin and the members of the board decided that while the artist preferred not to publicize his contributions while he was alive, they would change the corporation's name in his honor. In 2006, the corporation officially became a foundation, although the goals stayed the same: to provide support to those with hearing disorders and to empower youth through education.
The foundation is involved with many events to mark the 80th anniversary of Charles' birth. In February, as president of both the foundation and the Ray Charles Memorial Library, Ervin traveled with eight students from Compton High School in California to a civil rights celebration at the White House.
Guiding the foundation's work is a vision statement defining its broadest aim-to instill the belief in the youth of America that "there is no challenge too great one cannot overcome."