Maria Sharapova, the world's top-ranked female tennis player, on Wednesday became a goodwill ambassador for the UN Development Fund and donated $100,000 to help victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
At a crowded press conference, Sharapova, 19, said she gave the money to eight UN development projects in rural communities in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine for youths still suffering from the April 1986 Chernobyl power plant explosion.
The world's worst nuclear accident in the Ukraine spewed clouds of radioactive dust into parts of Europe, Russia and especially Belarus, making large areas uninhabitable.
"My first step is to focus on the Chernobyl-affected region, where my family has roots," Sharapova said. "Today, it is poverty and lack of opportunities that pose the greatest threat for young people in the Chernobyl region."
Sharapova's family left Gomel in Belarus after the Chernobyl accident. She was born in Nyagan in Siberia a year later but left Russia for the United States at age 9 to study tennis. She won Wimbledon in 2004 and the US Open in 2006.
Sharapova is one of the highest paid female athletes, earning nearly $19 million last year in advertising endorsement and prize money and endorsements, according to Forbes magazine.
Individual UN agencies have used numerous goodwill ambassadors, beginning with UNICEF, the UN Children's Fund, in the 1950s. Other envoys, like retired boxer Muhammad Ali, and actor Michael Douglas serve as peace envoys for the UN secretary-general.
Goodwill ambassadors for UNDP include soccer stars Ronaldo of Brazil, Zinedine Zidane of France and now also Didier Drogba of Ivory Coast as well as Crown Prince Haakon Magnus of Norway, Japanese actress Misako Konno and US basketball star Dikembe Mutombo, a native of the Democratic Republic of Congo.