Charles in charge on and off court

Connecticut Sun center Tina Charles, center, and teammate Kelsey Griffin look at photos taken by Jesse Garrabrant, left, during Media Day at Mohegan Sun Arena on Monday.

Mohegan - There is no manual, no textbook, for the moment when a human being feels a deeper sense of obligation to things that are greater than his or her own self-interest.

But it happened for Tina Charles somewhat innocently, the day she surfed the Internet and came upon actress Jennifer Aniston wearing a T-shirt.

It bore a peace sign, an outline of Africa, the words "Omni Peace" and the hope to end poverty there by the year 2025.

It inspired Charles - U.S. Olympian, Connecticut Sun center, UConn grad - to learn more. And now there is a newly built school in Mali, a country in western Africa, because of Charles' benevolence.

"Last year, I went to see my good friend Jackie Gemelos in Los Angeles and met with (Omni Peace) founder Mary Fanaro," Charles said Tuesday at Sun Media Day, the official commencement of the franchise's 10th summer in Connecticut.

Fanaro began Omni Peace as a fashion brand in 2007. In 2005, according to the Omni Peace web site, Fanaro watched a concert and later began a food line called "Peace of Chocolate," whose profits would benefit initiatives to end African poverty. The clothing label came later.

Charles became Omni Peace's first sports ambassador, later telling Fanaro she wanted to build a school in Africa. Fanaro delivered the news that the cost would be $32,000. Charles, whose salary playing in the WNBA and overseas is comfortable but certainly a million miles from an NBA salary, paid the money from her own pocket.

And a school was born.

"They started building in February," Charles said. "It was breathtaking. I saw little kids outside the school I got teary eyed."

Charles is merely the latest example of a former UConn player once looked upon as another of state's adopted daughters who is all grown up now. She was taught well, apparently.

"I'm very proud of her," Sun coach Mike Thibault said. "I see how she talks to people now, interacts with them. A lot of times, coming out of college as an All-American, you get absorbed in yourself and you don't see the other part of the world.

"Tina is more of a big picture person. She sees how a team interacts. It speaks to the great upbringing she had, her family and her college experience."

Charles' family hails from Kingston, Jamaica on her mother's side and Trinidad and Tobago on her father's side. And while she has no direct tie to Africa, her passion for education runs to her soul.

"My grandmother was the first teacher in Kingston," Charles said. "My family is based on education."

Charles grinned at the coincidence of the Sun's first-round draft choice at last month's WNBA Draft: center Astan Dobo. She hails from Mali.

Thibault was a pretty happy guy Monday, reporting that all the returnees, particularly veterans Kara Lawson and Asjha Jones, have never looked or felt better. And that his Olympic center has it all figured out.

"I want to build more schools," Charles said. "Spread the word for all athletes to raise $32,000."

m.dimauro@theday.com

Tina Charles leaps in the air while mugging for the cameras during Connecticut Sun Media Day on Tuesday at Mohegan Sun Arena.
Tina Charles leaps in the air while mugging for the cameras during Connecticut Sun Media Day on Tuesday at Mohegan Sun Arena.
Former North Carolina teammates Chay Shegog, left, and Jessica Breland share a laugh while together during Connecticut Sun Media Day on Tuesday at Mohegan Sun Arena.
Former North Carolina teammates Chay Shegog, left, and Jessica Breland share a laugh while together during Connecticut Sun Media Day on Tuesday at Mohegan Sun Arena.
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