Simon Estes has sung for presidents and popes. He sang in opera houses across the world, when domestic venues ignored him because of the color of his skin. At the opening of Monday’s meeting of the Clinton Rotary Club, his rendition of “God Bless America” easily filled the expansive ballroom.
But there is one place where the Julliard-trained opera singer’s voice sounds just a little bit louder than anywhere else.
To the millions of South African children faced with the nightly danger of a malaria laced mosquito bite, a voice like Estes’ could save their very lives.
“They shouldn’t have to die,” Estes said.
From poverty in Centerville to international acclaim, Estes’ music has taken him everywhere. But it was during his trips to Africa that he found one of his true callings. Touched by the suffering felt by African children, who have died by the millions from malaria, a deadly pandemic spread by mosquitos, Estes has made his influence work for their safety.
Estes was born decades ago in a time when blacks and whites were separated by law. He said he remembered sitting in different movie theater seats, and city employees adding extra disinfectant to swimming pools following the black kids’ swim time.
Estes said his dad made $23 a week at the peak of his professional life, and he used every cent of that to raise six kids. But the lack of money didn’t dissuade Estes’ parents from encouraging a commitment to education and a commitment to faith.
“We were poor economically,” he said, “but we were billionaires in our respect for God.”
He was taught to pray for those who ridiculed his socioeconomic status, a practice he says taught him compassion and respect.
“(His mother said) ‘You get down on your knees and pray for those people,’” Estes said. “I’m so grateful they gave me a foundation like this.”
Estes worked his way through college at Iowa. His involvement in an on-campus music club helped him catch the ear of a professor, who began training Estes in the art of operatic singing. Eventually, Estes became so adept at the singing style, he received a full scholarship to Julliard School of Music.
Eventually Estes’ talent had spread throughout the world. The same opera houses that rejected him at the outset of his career, simply for the color of his skin, eventually became his gracious hosts.
Estes parlayed that success into hope for the children of Africa, starting a school and helping purchase thousands of mosquito nets, which help protect Africans from deadly insects while they sleep.
He has spread his Simon Estes International Foundation for Children to Switzerland, and has helped gifted African student musicians travel to America to perform.
Clinton Rotary members helped contribute to Estes’ cause. Copies of his CD, which features his rendition of classic tunes, were sold for $15, with $5 of that going towards his charity.
Club president Gary Foster said donations were higher than normal for this month, and that Rotary donations alone would save dozens of lives.
Estes came to the Rotary meeting at the behest of past president Kathy Klahn, who had met the opera singer at a previous event. After hearing his emotional story, Klahn said she had to try to get him to speak in Clinton.
“If (Estes’ story) doesn’t touch your heart, I hate to tell you, there’s something wrong with you,” she said.
All 30 CDs Estes brought quickly sold out, and several Rotarians donated additional cash to the charity.