"I'd rather kill myself," the world-famous rocker says. "It is very important to me that this foundation is real and not about a guy who does photo ops. There is no pride in any of that. I can't do it."
For 30 years, as frontman for one of the biggest rock bands on the planet, Bon Jovi has lived in the public eye – his life photographed, filmed and chronicled, his work reviewed and analyzed.
But over the past few years, Bon Jovi has increasingly turned his attention to the less-glamorous work of understanding the needs of less-fortunate residents of New Jersey, Philadelphia and beyond, researching ways to help them and then working with communities to open new facilities through his JBJ Soul Foundation. One example is the Soul Kitchen, a restaurant that allows diners to work for their meals. Another is JBJ Soul Homes, a partnership with Project HOME that includes 55 apartments for formerly homeless and low-income residents in Philly.
Celebrity-driven charity efforts are nothing new, and cynics may scoff at the idea that a rock star does much more than lend his name to an organization. Bon Jovi's longtime business partner says the Soul Foundation is not like that. "He wants to be involved and he is intimately focused on every step of every project," says Craig Spencer, who formerly co-owned the Philadelphia Soul arena football team with Bon Jovi and helped found this foundation in 2006. "He uses his brand to benefit others, not himself."
Case in point: Last year's tour in support of the band's No. 1 album What About Now, was rife with disruptions: Drummer Tico Torres underwent two emergency surgeries. And lead guitarist Richie Sambora famously quit the tour. Yet Jon Bon Jovi worked during off-dates to advance the foundation.
"He asked me to find best practices-type of organizations that deal with homeless youth so we could visit and find out what has worked for them," says Mimi Box, Soul Foundation executive director and one of only two paid employees of the organization. "He wants to be fully informed."
Adds foundation President Leo Carlin: "Jon often speaks about the power of 'We' and what we can accomplish together, but it takes the power of 'One' to move the 'We,' and Jon is that 'One.' "
Perhaps more accurately, it's the power of two. Driving through Red Bank almost three years after establishing JBJ Soul Kitchen, Bon Jovi talks about his wife of 25 years, Dorothea (who declines interviews) and her brilliance for turning visions into realities. After the 2008 economic downturn, support slowed for the foundation's housing projects. Relaxing at home, the Bon Jovis were drawninto a news report about a restaurant that reached out to the community's neediest residents.
"Dorothea and I started to have a conversation, and we volleyed ideas back and forth. People have a roof over their heads, but now they gotta eat. We thought it was a great idea. The definition of our mission became clear only with time, and a year of the experiment."
In Red Bank, Bon Jovi points out the landmarks that led to the Soul Kitchen: There's the church where it began with weekly Sunday meals, where every fork, plate, pot and food had to be carried in and out; there's the struggling restaurant that closed rather than house Soul Kitchen because the owner couldn't personally profit from it; there's the institutional soup kitchen; and there's the former auto service shop that was transformed through Dorothea's vision into the linen-and-crystal sit-down JBJ Soul Kitchen.
At this community restaurant, patrons are asked to donate $10 or volunteer their labor for a meal. It serves dinner on Thursdays, Fridaysand Saturdays and lunch on Sundays, averaging 45 to 50 meals per day.
"There is a different set of challenges when you say to somebody, 'We want to provide you a warm, nutritious meal, but we need you to pick up after yourself and maybe wash a dish or take the garbage out,' " Bon Jovi says. "They say 'Who you talking to?' But it's 'No, no, no. This is me, my wife, my kid, Terrence, in the kitchen.' When you explain this to somebody who is used to entitlement, immediately any mask comes off and they say, 'Oh, OK, great, I can do that.' … The sense of pride, of purpose, is unbelievable."
Restaurant manager and friend Lou Morreale attests to Bon Jovi's dedication, saying he is the best dishwasher he knows.
"I loved washing the dishes there. I can't now," Bon Jovi says. "Why? This isn't the place to come and meet the rock star. Second, the size of the place — I am taking a job away. Folks need to feel empowered."
He wishes others would use the Soul Kitchen as a model to establish a similar restaurant but shakes his head when praised for his efforts. "I don't sit in front of a mirror and think, 'Aren't I wonderful?'" he says. "Angie Jolie does a wonderful job. George Clooney does a wonderful job.A lot of good came out of their celebrity."
When it's mentioned that rock stars aren't generally among that group, he pauses.
"My whole genre, my whole decade of music, I didn't want to be them when I was a kid," he says. "Some journalists tell me, 'You're not very rock 'n' roll.' If all they think is that I should throw a TV out the window, then I'm not interested in talking to them. I don't live the cliché, rock star life."
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Jon Bon Jovi spoke about the work of the JBJ Soul Foundation at the USA WEEKEND Make A Difference Day Awards luncheon in April in Washington, D.C.
Make A Difference Day, co-sponsored by Points of Light and Newman's Own, is the nation's largest day of service, with millions of volunteers participating in projects across the USA. The next Make A Difference Day is Oct. 25, 2014. For more information or to find a project, visit makeadifferenceday.com.