As an Oscar-winning actor, film director and fervent civil-rights advocate, Sidney Poitier boasts a distinguished and justly lauded resume. What fans of the celebrated “Lilies of the Field” star might not realize, however, is that before his unofficial retirement from the screen, and increasingly in the years following, Poitier has devoted himself to the lower-profile pursuit of philanthropic and cultural missions around the globe.
At the age of 79, his pace continues undiminished. Poitier currently serves as ambassador to Japan for the Commonwealth of the Bahamas, ambassador to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and president and CEO of Verdon Cedric Prods.
Through the Sidney and Joanna S. Poitier Foundation, he has made contributions to the Children’s Defense Fund, the Student Sponsorship Program of South Africa, the Quincy Jones Listen Up Foundation, Oprah’s Angel Network, the Los Angeles Urban League, the H.A.D.L.E.Y. Players Theater and the Giving Back Corp., among many others.
But it is his generous spirit that distinguishes his efforts. Poitier does more than just lend his name and donate money. He has made a concerted effort to personally foster a cause and better educate himself about the endeavor.
In the last year, he accompanied former Paramount head Sherry Lansing to Benin to witness the successful completion of the Red Cross’ ambitious mission to vaccinate 20 million African children against measles. Poitier told Lansing he was eager to personally witness this feat.
“This is a man who cares,” says Lansing, “who wants to make the world a better place and does it without trying to bring attention to himself.
“In Benin, we were part of the vaccination team,” she recalls. “I watched him with these kids, and there was sheer joy in his eyes. I will always have this image in my mind of Sidney dancing with this one little boy.”
Despite the conditions they witnessed, Lansing was also impressed that “Sidney always carried himself with such poise and dignity, and somehow always managed to look like he’d stepped out of the pages of Esquire.”
Also traveling with them was Julie Irby, communications director for the Red Cross Measles Initiative. When Poitier asked to go on the trip, he explained that he wanted to see how the people in Benin live and “how it affects my life,” says Irby. “No one had ever expressed such interest in the people and the culture in that way before.”
Explaining his prior work with the Red Cross and his longstanding commitment to the international aid organization, Poitier relayed that when he first moved to New York as a teenager, with no money and no place to live, only the Red Cross offered him solace — some money for food and short-term rent. “And he always said that if he could ever give back to them for their kindness, he would,” says Irby.
Back in the States, Poitier agreed to serve on the panel of judges to select the 15 winners of the inaugural Purpose Prize, an honor created “to shine a light on people over the age of 60 who are making significant contributions to the community,” says org director and exec VP Jim Emerman.
Fittingly, “Sidney very much exemplifies the type of person we try to honor,” Emerman explains. Poitier was careful and thorough in making his decisions, he says. In addition to being a judge, he also attended the ceremony at Stanford U. and bestowed half of the awards. “He clearly identified with the purpose of the program, and it meant a great deal to the people we honored to receive their award from Sidney. It validated what they were doing.”