She prefers to stay out of the spotlight these days, but behind the scenes Stefanie Graf is putting her fame to good use.
Back when Stefanie Graf was the number-one-ranked women’s tennis player in the world, before she put down her racket and settled into a quiet family life in Las Vegas—carpooling, having family dinners with her husband, tennis star Andre Agassi—she was a nomad, on the road hundreds of days a year for tournaments all over the globe. On a recommendation from a friend, Graf took some time while playing in Hamburg, Germany, to visit a clinic treating children suffering from the psychological effects of war, and her life was forever changed. She founded Children for Tomorrow (CFT), a Hamburg-based organization that has, for the past 17 years, peeled back the layers of trauma to reveal children filled with potential.
“I got to meet Professor Peter Riedesser, who was running a clinic for traumatized children, and he talked to me about his work,” says Graf, a native of Mannheim, Germany. “His passion had a huge impact on me. I met some of the kids he was treating—a lot of them from Somalia and Yugoslavia…. You could sense their struggle, not being able to verbalize, not being able to look you in the eye.” Graf wanted to help—and gave generously—but she needed to do more to bring awareness to these voiceless victims and their invisible wounds, so in 1998 she established her organization.
According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are more than 50 million displaced people worldwide, almost half of them children or adolescents. CFT sees about 1,000 of these kids annually—a number that Graf hopes to increase in the future.
Her organization touches children directly, beginning with the two kindergartens it opened in Cape Town in 1999, where art therapy is a primary tool, allowing the children to express their emotions related to abuse, neglect, and violence. “I will never forget the little boy rescued from a garbage fire after being thrown in by his own father,” Graf says, choking up at the memory. “His face was half burned. That image stuck with me, but there are so many hidden emotional stories.”
In Kosovo, where CFT runs summer camps and teaches conflict resolution, nurses and therapists use music and theater to unburden youngsters of their grief. “We try to get different ethnic backgrounds to work together,” Graf says, “and help kids open up about their traumas in different cultures.”
Some of the many children aided by Children for Tomorrow.
At its headquarters, CFT treats a steady flow of refugees, from newborns to 19-year-olds, from Eritrea, Somalia, Afghanistan, and other war-torn countries. “We’re one of the few foundations that provides translators,” she says, “though often healing happens through art.” The organization also sends doctors and therapists to countries where there are few. In Eritrea, for example, it funded and built a kindergarten in the slums of Asmara, offering a place of refuge, and another kindergarten is being planned.
The camera-shy Graf, 45, prefers to stay behind the scenes. But for those served by Children for Tomorrow, she is willing to leverage her fame to shed light on their cause—and teach the power of generosity to the next generation. “Through my husband’s work, I’ve seen that it’s ingrained in Americans to give back. For different reasons, fundraising is more challenging in Europe,” she says. “So if you see me once in a while on the tennis court, it’s mostly me playing for my foundation.”
In fact, Graf and Agassi’s children are barely aware of their parents as tennis superstars. “They were 5 or 6 when Andre retired,” Graf says, “so their memory of our lives is more about what we’ve been doing after tennis.” If you come to their house, she adds, “there are few tennis rackets, no trophies or pictures. Our sports careers are in our past.”
But the world’s children are very much in her present and future, and her foundation has had many success stories. “I met a girl who had escaped the war in Afghanistan by ferry with her cousin, sister, and sister’s baby, and the sister and the baby went overboard,” Graf says. CFT offered the girl a chance for a self-determined life. “A year and a half later, she talks about survivor’s guilt, how much therapy helped, and how she wants to become a nurse.”
Such achievements keep Graf committed to her work, giving her hope that one person can make a difference. “It’s not important that these kids know who I am or what I’ve done,” she says. “It’s about breaking the cycle of violence and abuse and giving these kids a chance at success.”