Country stars work for the children

Wednesday, January 12, 2005 at 1:00am

Like many country music stars, Jamie O'Neal tries to clear her calendar one week a year for one performance she won't get paid for.

She knows that the CMA Music Festival put on by the Country Music Association each June will not only bring her closer to her fans and expose her to a new audience, it will also benefit a host of charities.

Four years ago, when Fan Fair, as it was then known, moved from the fairgrounds to downtown Nashville, the CMA decided to institute a new tradition - donating half of the proceeds to charities of the artists' choosing.

O'Neal picked Child Help USA, an organization that helps abused and neglected children.

"For me, as an artist, it's so important to be able to give back as much as you can and as many times as you can because you're so fortunate, I feel, to be able to do what you love to do," O'Neal said.

The CMA started the program partly to give artists who perform free shows the opportunity to know the fruits of their labor would benefit a cause close to their hearts, said Ed Benson, executive director of the CMA.

In December, the CMA's Cause for Celebration program donated $100,000 to 94 charities locally and throughout the country.

The money each charity gets is based on the amount of artists who have selected them and the status of their performance, Benson said. For instance, the charities will receive more money if an artist who picks them plays on the main Coliseum stage as opposed to the Riverfront Park stages.

But all of the more than 241 musicians who donated their time for the CMA festivities last year were asked to fill out a form designating contributions.

The checks range from as low as $85 to as high as $15,300 for the top vote-getter, the Country Music Retirement Community.

The retirement project has received the most money from Cause of Celebration for the past four years, without any active fund-raising from the volunteer board members, said Brian Williams, president of the board of the Retirement Community.

That project was envisioned 10 years ago to give financially struggling musicians a place to live out their sunset years with dignity. When established, the community will also be available to music industry people who want to pay market price to live there, William said.

Although the community board has yet to identify a site, it's making headway, thanks in large part to the CMA, which has donated more than $100,000 over the years, Williams said.

"It really motivates me to think that when we actually do have to go into our capital campaign phase, our level of success is fairly assured, just because I think we have the heart of the music community in this project," Williams said.

Other charities have been pleasantly surprised to receive these unsolicited funds from the Cause for Celebration. For the first time, Vanderbilt Children's Hospital was among the top five vote-getters, Benson said, without revealing the exact donation figure.

Amy Casseri, director of communications and community relations for the hospital, said she believes it's the first time the hospital made the Cause for Celebration list.

"When Ed [Benson] told us about this, we were just ecstatic," she said, adding she had not yet seen a check and didn't know how much to expect.

Casseri said hospital development officials did not actively seek funding or try to influence artists' selections. However, she admitted that it couldn't have hurt that country music artist Kix Brooks, the CMA's president last year, is also on the board of the children's hospital and has been an avid booster.

She said the money will probably be directed to the hospital's various children's programs, including outreach. Operating for nearly a year in its new facility on campus, the hospital serves all children of the region, regardless of ability to pay.

In future years, the CMA is counting on the donations to increase as the festival ticket purchases rise, Benson said.

The CMA's policy has been to donate half the CMA Music Festival's proceeds to charity. So far, it has donated $100,000 each year, even though that figure hasn't yet reached the 50 percent threshold. That has caused the CMA to dip into reserves. But that should change as the event grows in profitability, Benson said.

"My personal goal is being able to say we've given a million dollars or more a year to all these wonderful charities," Benson said.

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