Marathon Winner Lends Support to U.N. Program

Non-profit groups often turn to celebrities to help promote their causes, but the U.N. World Food Program has gained high-profile help from someone with unusually close ties to its mission. Paul Tergat, fresh from winning the New York City Marathon, says he'll never forget the programs that helped him survive in a dusty town in Kenya's Rift Valley.

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Plenty of humanitarian groups turn to celebrities to highlight their causes, but the United Nations World Food Program has found a more unusual ambassador, a world-class athlete who once benefited from the group's food handouts. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN reporting:

Fresh from his tight victory in the New York City Marathon, Kenyan Paul Tergat gives a high school track team some pointers about running, a sport he started only late in life when he was in the Kenyan Air Force.

Mr. PAUL TERGAT (Marathon Runner): I used to feel that running was a punishment, because every time after running, I'm having sore muscles every time. But little did I know that it was going to change my life forever.

KELEMEN: In the auditorium at the Hyde Leadership Charter School, students are eager to learn how much money he makes winning races and how hard he trains. The boyish-looking 36-year-old with a perpetual grin says he runs about a hundred and sixty-seven miles a week. And though he's well-dressed and supports his wife and three children on his running wins, he keeps steering the conversation back to his impoverished past.

Mr. TERGAT: Where I grew up is very dry, very hot, very low-key, particularly we did not have anything to eat when I was growing up. Life was a struggle.

KELEMEN: When he was eight years old, Tergat says, the World Food Program began providing meals at his school in Baringo, in Kenya's Rift Valley.

Mr. TERGAT: It came, a hope. It came opportunity to choose what I wanted to do in my life.

KELEMEN: Now a record-holding marathoner, he's giving back by promoting the feeding programs that helped him survive. Fifteen-year-old Robert Kelly(ph) and his classmate William Harris(ph) were inspired.

ROBERT KELLY (Student): He's a great man.

WILLIAM HARRIS (Student): Yeah.

KELLY: I don't know if I could do that.

HARRIS: It's amazing, like, how he came from something...

KELLY: Starving.

HARRIS: Yeah.

KELLY: He made something out of it.

HARRIS: To where he is now.

KELLY: Right.

HARRIS: Yeah.

KELLY: Like we had a discussion the other day in a meeting. If you're born poor, could you really...

HARRIS: Improve yourself.

KELLY: ...succeed in life? Could you really be anything? And he's a perfect example of succeeding.

KELEMEN: Judith Lewis of the World Food Program says she's hoping these students will learn another lesson as well.

Ms. JUDITH LEWIS (World Food Program): It's not so much about raising money but raising awareness. As Paul said, there are 300 million children in the world today who don't have enough food to eat; a hundred and fifty million of those don't go to school. And so there's a huge gap there in terms of children having an opportunity and having enough food to eat.

KELEMEN: As she hands out World Food Program hats, Kenyan runner Paul Tergat signs autographs and poses for pictures. He's doing that on Capitol Hill this week as well, since the US remains the biggest donor to the World Food Program and gives about a hundred million dollars a year to the school feeding program he's promoting. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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