NICHOLASVILLE — Whether it's helping the earthquake-stricken people in Haiti or the hearing impaired in Kentucky, the work is done much in the same spirit, former President Bill Clinton said Friday night at a fund-raising dinner for the Lexington Hearing & Speech Center.
"This is a big piece of what will determine America's success and decency and humanity in the 21st century," Clinton said.
"Intelligence and ability and dreams are evenly distributed across humanity," Clinton added. "Opportunity and organization and empowerment are not. And that's why you're here to support them."
Clinton spoke Friday night to kick off a $3 million fund-raising campaign to replace the facility on North Ashland Avenue. Nearly 500 people attended. Tickets for the event went for $500 a person or $4,500 for a table of 10.
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The event was held at the R.J. Corman Railroad Group aircraft hangar on U.S. 27 in Nicholasville. Clinton attended free of charge, and proceeds from ticket sales went toward fund-raising efforts for the center. Organizers anticipated that ticket sales and pledges would raise more than $300,000.
The center teaches children with hearing, speech and language impairments to listen and talk, offering education, therapy and family support. Clinton took a private tour of the center Friday afternoon and met some of the students who go there.
"Everywhere you see people standing together to step into a gap to do a public good beyond their own personal interest. We all need to look and say 'Can I help there? Should I help there?" Clinton said.
Places like the hearing center often "are doing something that the government's not doing or the private sector can't do, or they're doing something faster, cheaper or better. They're breaking a mold. Fifty years ago, this center broke a mold. But because they did, ironically, the need for what they do grows and grows and grows."
Clinton said $3 million "is a tiny price to pay" to help children with impaired hearing. The former president said he has had a minor hearing impairment for more than 30 years, which he attributed to playing in a rock 'n' roll band and hunting as he was growing up in Arkansas.
"Apparently the combined impact of gunshots and amps are not good for the ears," Clinton said.
"I first noticed when I was a young governor in my early 30s," Clinton said, "when I went to a basketball game or football game, and I was walking up and down the aisles, and people called out to me and I never heard them. They'd say, 'See, I told you: We elected that guy too young. He is so arrogant, he won't even talk to us any more.'"
Friday night's menu included fresh fruit; peppered arugula; lump crab; imported cheeses; oven-baked sea bass drizzled with fresh lemon; sliced tenderloin of beef topped with horseradish and peppercorn; potatoes Dauphinoise; and French-style green beans.
The dinner attracted a who's who of Democrats, including former Gov. John Y. Brown Jr., Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo, state Attorney General and U.S. Senate candidate Jack Conway, House Speaker Greg Stumbo and state Auditor Crit Luallen. Lexington Mayor Jim Newberry and mayoral challenger Jim Gray also attended.
Also in the audience was Phil Hellmuth Jr., a world champion poker player who has raised millions of dollars for the Starkey Hearing Foundation and other charities. The Starkey organization, which delivers more than 50,000 hearing aids around the world, sponsored Friday night's event.
"When you're blessed with fame and fortune and great success, then you have to help others," Hellmuth said. "It's not just about you."
Hellmuth said he has not played poker with Clinton.
"There are government officials I've played poker with, but I'm not allowed to even talk about it ... because I can't betray their trust," he said.
Clinton said he came to Kentucky in part because he was encouraged to do so by former state Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Lundergan and his wife. Lundergan's catering company, Lundy's, catered the Nicholasville banquet. The Lundergans have a daughter who graduated from the Lexington Hearing & Speech Center, Clinton said.
"Whenever they ask me to do something, I try to do it," Clinton said. "I found that I'm going to do it sooner or later anyway, and it saves a lot of time if I just go on and say yes. Those who have dealt with them know what I'm talking about."