Yul Kwon has been accused of being something of an emotionless cyborg when it comes to Survivor. After all, his smarts and analytical gameplay are often credited for his Cook Islands victory. But the man indeed does has a heart, as evidenced by his Winners at War pre-game declaration to EW that he wanted to donate his winnings to ALS research in honor of his former castmate and current friend Jonathan Penner and Penner’s wife, Stacy Title, who suffers from the disease.
And viewers are going to see that heart — and the emotion that comes with it — on full display on tonight’s episode of Survivor when Yul opens up to Sarah and Wendell about his friendship with Penner and Stacy, and how watching what they are going through has impacted his life and his mission to help raise ALS awareness. It’s a powerful scene and one which may get people to reconsider their assumptions about the Cook Islands champ. We connected with Yul before the episode airs, and he revealed that he is once again ready to put his money where his mouth is. Read on for all the intel, and find out how you can be part of Yul’s mission. And check out the big emotional scene itself above.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s start with this: What were your first impressions of Jonathan Penner when you met him on Survivor: Cook Islands? I ask because I was embedded with you all for the days before the game and I remember thinking that the first person voted out would probably be either Sekou Bunch or Penner. I was right about one, and the other ended up playing three times!
YUL KWON: My first impression of Jonathan? Chicken-thief, of course!
My first discernible memory of Jonathan is seeing him running away with the chicken I had just retrieved from the ocean. In the chaos of the marooning, a chicken had flown off the ship into the water, and my tribemate, Cao Boi, yelled at me to go fetch it. Mind you, I had been seasick for hours and was so disoriented that I would probably have done something stupid like jumping into the ocean if someone had told me to. Which, as it turns out, is exactly what I did. By the time I had managed to secure the chicken, hand it off to Cao Boi, and sloooowly climb back on the ship, I could barely move.
When I could walk again, I found the now chicken-less Cao Boi and asked him what happened to my chicken. He said, “Don’t worry about it. I put the chicken in a sleeper hold.” I said, “What the hell is a sleeper hold?” He patiently explained to me that if you tuck a chicken’s head under its wing, it will fall asleep. Before I could reply that that was the dumbest thing I’d ever heard, I looked up and saw Jonathan running away with my chicken in his hand. Then I heard Jeff yell that everyone had to get off the ship. I would have cried if I didn’t feel like throwing up.
So my friendship with Jonathan didn’t exactly start off on a positive note. I definitely would have voted him out over Sekou. But now, he’s one of my closest friends. I don’t know what to make of all this except that I’m never going to jump off a ship to catch a chicken again.
What have you learned about living with ALS from watching Stacy and Jonathan’s journey?
I’ve learned that living with ALS is one of the hardest experiences anyone could ever go through. ALS is a fatal neurodegenerative disease that robs you of your ability to control your body. Within a year after Stacy was diagnosed at the end of 2017, she had lost the ability to walk or speak. She went on a ventilator when she could no longer breathe, and she started using a feeding tube when she could no longer control her mouth or tongue. For the past year, the only part of her body she could still control is her eyes. She uses eye-tracking technology to spell out words on a computer screen, which are then verbalized by an electronic voice. But even that modest amount of control is starting to fade. The tragic irony is that she still has full sensation throughout her body. She can feel every itch and jolt of pain. But she can’t do anything about it unless someone helps her.
As for Jonathan, his world revolves around Stacy. She’s completely dependent on him and needs around-the-clock care. As her primary caretaker, he’s with her constantly — moving her, dressing her, bathing her, doing anything and everything she needs. Not only has this been immensely stressful for him both emotionally and physically, the demands are such that it’s been virtually impossible for him to work, which only added to the massive financial pressure on their family.
What scares Stacy and Jonathan most, though, is the possibility that their children will be stricken with ALS too. Stacy, unfortunately, has a rare version of ALS known as familial ALS, which is caused by a genetic abnormality that can be inherited. Each of their two children, Cooper and Ava, has a 50 percent chance of inheriting the genetic abnormality that causes the disease. This is why Stacy and Jonathan are so focused on raising awareness — they want to find a cure before ALS affects their children.
It breaks my heart to see such a warm and tight-knit family be devastated by this. It’s also shown me what real courage and love look like. Stacy faces the impossible each day with more determination and grace than I could ever imagine summoning myself. And Jonathan is the kind of husband and father I aspire to be, whose love for his wife and kids sustains him even as his mind and body are spent with worry and exhaustion.
When I got the invitation to go back on Survivor, seeing what Stacy and Jonathan were going through really made the decision for me. I figured this might provide an opportunity to raise awareness and help them in a way I couldn’t do otherwise. The great news is that CBS and all the other Winners at War have gotten behind this effort. In tonight’s episode, CBS will be airing a PSA in which Stacy and Jonathan encourage viewers to visit www.cbs.com/SurvivorALSInfo, where they can learn more about ALS and donate to support ALS research and families. In the hope of encouraging more people to donate, I’ll be matching the first $50,000 in donations so that every donation will double its impact. It’s a small step in the grand scheme of things, but I’m hoping that the whole Survivor community will rally together to help someone in our family as well as other families in need.
When we spoke the day before the game began, you mentioned that if you made it to the end, you were thinking of offering to donate your winnings to ALS research in honor of Stacy and asking CBS to do a dollar to dollar match. With that in mind, what were you thinking on day 1 when you found out the grand prize was actually $2 million?
My first thought was, “Dang, I should have just said I was going to donate a million dollars instead of all my winnings.” I’m just kidding, of course. Well, mostly. No, no, I’m kidding.
Seriously, though, I was thinking that $2 million could really make a difference in terms of funding ALS research and support. And then I thought my mom would probably kill me if I gave away $2 million dollars. And then I thought maybe I could tell my mom that I was on a special charity edition of Survivor where you couldn’t actually keep any money. And then I thought why am I stressing out so much about my mother? And then I thought I really shouldn’t have skipped that last appointment with my therapist.
I know you carefully consider every angle, so were you at all concerned about bringing anything up to your tribe about ALS awareness in terms of them maybe not wanting to sit next to you at the end with that story?
I did spend a lot of time thinking about whether I should share my motivation for playing again. I definitely thought it would be a terrible idea to actually tell people what I planned to do with the money if I won. I’d get voted out in a heartbeat.
As for telling the story of what Stacy and Jonathan are going through, I did share that pretty early on and I think it’s going to be shown in tonight’s episode. But it wasn’t something I had planned in advance. If I remember, Stacy’s name came up during a casual conversation within our tribe, so I started sharing more details about what she and Jonathan were dealing with. Then before I knew it, my emotions came pouring out. I got choked up and walked away to collect myself, after which Sarah came up to me to express sympathy and support.
I’m a bit nervous about how all this is going to be shown on television, I don’t think I’ve ever cried on camera before. I wonder if people will be surprised to find I’ve upgraded my Yulbot operating system with emotional software that includes a crying subroutine.
Visit www.cbs.com/SurvivorALSInfo to donate now.