“If you own a TV in America, you know Ryan Seacrest,” says Chris Coleman, manager of broadcast and production at Seacrest Studios at Children’s Hospital Colorado.

“I’ve lost count of the number of people who say to me, I know Ryan Seacrest from hosting ‘American Idol,’ I know Ryan Seacrest from hosting ‘New Year’s Rockin’ Eve,’ and I had no idea he did something like this.”

“This” is the Ryan Seacrest Foundation (RSF) — the nonprofit, charitable organization that aims to inspire young people through its entertainment and education-based initiatives. Since its inception in 2009, RSF has installed eight multimedia broadcast centers, dubbed Seacrest Studios, in pediatric hospitals around the country — with two more coming by year’s end, in Nashville and Washington, D.C. These high-tech production facilities enable patients to actively explore all aspects of media, from being a disc jockey, to conducting radio and TV interviews, to watching A-list artists perform live. Celebrities including Lady Antebellum, Taylor Swift and Justin Timberlake have stopped by the studios around the country to visit, thanks to Seacrest’s unrivalled connections.

“You have to see this in action to understand it,” Coleman says. “It’s nothing short of life-changing.”

Seacrest, Variety’s Philanthropist of the Year, says he came up with the idea 10 years ago after a visit to Children’s Hospital of Orange County. “I asked the parents what they could use to help them get through what they were going through, and more often than not, the answer was, they needed something to do,” he recalls. Their hospital stays were often extensive — a week, a month, a year — and their kids were bored and restless.

His own family was visiting at the time, so relatives helped him shape the idea of tapping into his skill set and experience to create an event-like “distraction” within the hospital: a radio/TV studio where the kids do all the production and interview stars who come through while they’re on tour. No patient is excluded — phone lines are installed in every hospital room, so those who are confined to bed can call in to the studio or watch the programming coming out of it on the TV in their rooms. Another point of pride for Ryan Seacrest: Local colleges in each city provide the studios with interns, who can learn valuable skills about media.

Ryan Seacrest visited Children’s Hospital Colorado. Photo: Jason Bahr/Getty Images

RSF has indeed become a family affair: Seacrest’s sister and parents work full time for the foundation. His father, Gary, serves as president and CEO; mom Connie oversees community affairs and hospital relations; and sister Meredith is executive director and COO. “It’s a good way to work as a team and as siblings,” Meredith Seacrest says. “I love working with my brother.”

Echoes Ryan, “It’s special to have (my family) with me.”

Seacrest’s family of celebrity friends have pitched in, too. Name a star and chances are he’s visited one of the Seacrest Studios: Ed Sheeran. Fall Out Boy. Josh Hutcherson. Flo Rida. Also, Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood. “If he knows someone’s on tour, he’ll make the ask (to visit a studio) as he sees them come through his radio station,” says Meredith Seacrest.

And then they’re hooked. “More often than not, once they go, they go back again,” says Ryan Seacrest. “Because they see the expressions on the kids’ faces, kids who wouldn’t otherwise have gotten out of bed.”
Selena Gomez was recruited as the first celebrity ambassador to spread the word; Nick Jonas recently signed up as well. Says Jonas: “I’ve had the chance over the course of several years to visit some of the hospitals he works in, and I was blown away.”

Given his own charity work with diabetes, a personal cause of his, Jonas says he’s been awed by Seacrest’s commitment. “The work he’s done, in finding a way to use his relationships and the people he knows in the business, is amazing,” he says. “You can tell he’s passionate about it. For someone who’s achieved so much to be so willing to give back, and so aggressive about doing what he can to help, is really inspiring.”

But Seacrest is not done yet. Now that he’s established the 10 studios, he wants to build the first pediatric entertainment network and connect them all — so children in Dallas and Boston and D.C. can share their content and experiences. “You’re going through something no one in your facility is going through, but maybe someone across the country is,” he says. “There’s a way to bond over that and help you get through that.”

Given his famously workaholic, overloaded schedule, the obvious question is: How does he squeeze in the hours it takes to truly contribute? “It’s not hard to find the time to do this,” he says. “This is something I’m so proud of. I’m so proud that we had a chance to do it, and that it worked. It’s the most important thing of everything I do. It’s the most rewarding of everything I do. This is the best work I can do.”

Even with all his commitments — from the radio show to the TV shows to his producing gigs — philanthropy, he says, will always be a priority. “The wonderful part about working for so many people for so many years is that I have the means and resources to give back and help out,” he says. “I have a responsibility to do it. It’s part of who we as human beings should be. It’s part of what we should be doing, and what we need to be doing. It’s important for young people to figure out what their passion points are and to contribute to something as they’re growing up. I believe it’s our job to give back.”

He calls Variety’s Philanthropist of the Year honor particularly special, because it’s recognizing a “homegrown project,” he says. “It’s something we didn’t know how to do. For us to be recognized and for people to learn more about what we’re doing and see what we’re doing, and even participate in what we’re doing, is very important.”

But what’s more important, he says, is the lessons he’s learned from visiting the children’s hospitals.
“I’ve learned to be grateful,” he says. “You’ve got to appreciate every little thing. You never think you’re going to be in one of these hospitals. You never plan for it. But parents always say, ‘This place saved our kids’ lives.’ You’re never the same after that.”