Growing up in Flint, Mich., I witnessed many of my friends and peers go down destructive paths due to the lack of influence and support in their lives. This was something that stayed with me throughout all my successes. I knew that if I was ever in a position to be a positive role model in the life of even just one at-risk child, I was going to do so wholeheartedly and make a difference. Hence, in 1998, I formed my own nonprofit organization, which is now known as the All 4 Kids Foundation. The foundation is committed to empowering underprivileged and at-risk youth by developing the skills they need to make positive choices in social and academic environments using a curriculum that expands their horizons and encourages them to participate in new areas of learning.
When I speak of at-risk youth, I am referring to youth who are likely to either drop out of school and or fall into a life of crime and destructive behaviors. The list of factors that can put a child "at-risk" is astounding and has to do with more than just the child's attitude toward school in general. It starts at home and then branches out into the community before it even gets to the school environment. These children may come from low-income families, have a dysfunctional home life, or have little to no parental involvement at all. Unfortunately, there aren't many or any role models these children can look up to for positive reinforcement. I saw this many times growing up, but I was fortunate to have parents and older brothers who loved me and wanted to help me to succeed.
As much as I would love to tell kids to play sports to escape the lives they may feel predestined to live, it is education that is truly important. I went back to school after 20 years and I received my bachelor's degree at the age of 46. Through education stems opportunities, and with that knowledge it does not matter where you came from -- just where you end up. My goal is for these children to be excited about their education, and have the confidence to pursue it. I want them to know that their opportunities are unlimited as long as they work hard and make good decisions for themselves.
When I first started my University Scholars Program at the University of Minnesota, I was shocked to find out that many of our middle-school youths never visited a college campus or even thought for a minute about attending college. The first time I took a group of students onto a campus, they were confused and asked, "Why would you take us here? They don't want us here and we would never be smart enough to attend." It broke my heart to think that they genuinely believed they had no chance of ever going to college. It reaffirmed the importance of my program and the long-term impact it would have in the lives of these students. This month marks the first college graduating class of students who began my program in 2001. This is a tremendous feat neither they nor their parents ever deemed imaginable. I plan to be in the audience watching with pride as they walk across the stage to accept their college diploma.
This summer, the program is expanding to Columbia University. The students selected will have a chance to experience firsthand all of the wonderful opportunities this prestigious college has to offer as we continue to promote early college awareness. We are continuing to work on expanding the program nationally and I know with our hard work and dedication to these students, we will continue to make an impact in many more lives.