RIBERA, N.M. – Don Imus’ banishment from the public airwaves also deprives him of a critical platform to raise money for the sprawling Imus Ranch, where children with cancer and other illnesses get a taste of the cowboy life.
Before he was fired last week after an on-air racial slur directed at the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, Imus pointed to the northern New Mexico ranch to make his case that he is “a good person who said a bad thing.”
With Imus out of a job, some wonder whether the pipeline to charity money will eventually dry up.
Just as corporate sponsors backed away from his radio show, “I think you’ll see a similar effect on the charity, where the corporate donors will find a less hot-button charity to support,” says Trent Stamp, president of Charity Navigator, a New Jersey-based charity watchdog group.
Imus says he and his wife Deirdre are round-the-clock surrogate parents to the youngsters who spend a week at the property, nearly half of whom are from minority groups and 10 percent are black.
“There’s not an African American parent on the planet who has sent their child to the Imus Ranch who didn’t trust me and trust my wife,” he said on his show. “And when these kids die, we don’t just go to the white kid’s funeral.”
Kansas horseman Rob Phillips says he still plans to give the ranch proceeds from a 500-mile charity race he’s staging this fall. But Phillips worries that without Imus’ radio forum, the ranch and other charities will suffer.
“He had a capability to get on the air and raise a tremendous amount of money for these causes,” Phillips says. “I don’t see anybody else doing that.”
Stamp says donations may increase in the short term because of the heightened attention – “the celebrity factor ratcheted up to a new level.”
The Imus show’s annual two-day fundraising radiothon, benefiting the ranch and two charities that refer children to it, raised more than $2.3 million according to Deirdre Imus, who hosted Friday’s show.
But in the long term, Stamp predicts the firing would cause “irreparable harm.”
The ranch’s list of contributors is not public information, but it has relied heavily on corporate contributions.
The Reader’s Digest Foundation gave $1 million seven years ago, Imus has said, and American Express made a one-time $250,000 donation nine years ago. Neither company is a contributor now, representatives said.
General Motors Corp. announced it would continue donating Chevrolet Suburbans for the ranch.
The Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey provides the doctors, nurses and “child life specialists” who attend every ranch session.
“While there is no excuse for these comments (by Imus), we cannot overlook all of the good he has done for families of Bergen County and across the nation,” the medical center said in a statement.
The nearly 4,000-acre ranch, at the foot of a mesa about 50 miles from Santa Fe, features a re-creation of the main street of a 19th-century Western town, a swimming pool, an indoor horse-riding arena, an outdoor rodeo arena, and barns.
Kids between 10 and 17 who have cancer or serious blood disorders or who have lost siblings to sudden infant death syndrome spend seven days at the ranch – in the summer, when Imus would broadcast from a studio there – at no cost to their families.
They do daily chores, learn to ride and care for horses, and help feed cattle, sheep, buffalo, chickens, goats and donkeys.
They stay in the main ranch house, a 14,000-square-foot adobe hacienda that the Imuses describe as an “architectural masterpiece.”
The menu is vegan: No meat, fish, poultry or dairy products are served.
It’s an expensive operation. The ranch hosted 90 children from March 2005 through February 2006 and spent $2.5 million – or about $28,000 a child – according to its most recent federal tax filings.
That’s at least 10 times what the Make-A-Wish or similar camps spend on kids, largely because the Imus operation is a year-round, working cattle ranch, Stamp says.
The ranch is at the edge of Ribera, one of a string of tiny villages along the Pecos River. Residents say the ranch closes itself off from the community, although Imus has given money to a local medical clinic and to a project to renovate a dilapidated school building into a community center, which he also publicly prodded Gov. Bill Richardson to support, calling him a “fat sissy” on the air.
Ignacio Lovato lives within a mile of the ranch but says he has never visited.
“You can’t go in there,” said Lovato, who occasionally watched the Imus show.
“Sometimes he was kind of funny, and sometimes he would say things he shouldn’t say,” said Lovato, downing a hamburger in La Risa Cafe. “I really don’t think he’s a good person.”