The wealthy in the US have long made supporting colleges and universities one of their top priorities, and most of their money goes to projects like a new building, a scholarship fund or an endowed professorship.
More difficult is developing and funding programs that provide extra support for teenagers who need a boost to stay on track in high school and get the most out of college.
A large donor decided to pour more money and resources into a mentoring program after seeing the pandemic disproportionately affect poor children with the move to online learning. While mentoring programs already exist – the Boys & Girls Clubs are an important one – Arthur Blank, one of the co-founders of Home Depot and owner of the Atlanta Falcons, had a particular vision.
“There is no one in America or in the world who is not very negatively affected by this pandemic,” said Blank, 78, in an interview. “These young men and women don’t always have the tools to deal with what happened to them in the pandemic. We try to teach them life skills. When they have more tools, it really helps. “
Mr. Blank donated $ 9.5 million last year through his family foundation and PGA Tour Superstore franchise to a program that culminated this month with a leadership summit at his West Creek Ranch in Montana.
“It’s about character development, the development of life skills and values,” said Mr. Blank. “If young people get this right, what they do will be meaningful and purposeful.”
Mr Blank’s program is divided into two parts. The first started with around 300 teenagers in more than two dozen PGA Tour superstores, which also had a chapter on First Tee, a nationwide program that uses golf to develop character and teach life skills to children ages 5-18 . First Tee nominated participants in the Blank program, many of them from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
The program included hands-on sessions on a variety of job roles and finance, in this case the golf industry, over half a dozen weekends. The program also included something called introspective exercises to help teenagers understand their strengths and weaknesses as they apply for college and consider future employment opportunities.
Bernardo Little Jr., 16 and a junior in an Atlanta high school, said an assessment of his strengths helped him better understand what he was good at and how that might help him in life.
“That’s how I imagined it, but I would never put it that way,” said Mr. Little, adding that one of his strengths was putting events into context and always looking to the future. “I use the past to guide the decisions I make for the future. And I am deliberate. I think a lot before I make a decision. “
Manyi Ngu, 18, a high school graduate in Jacksonville, Florida, said she got the most out of an activity in the first part of the program that asked teenagers to pick 10 things or values that mattered most to them and then limit the list to five and then two one.
“The 10 was easy,” she said. “It was tough going to five. It was difficult to reduce it to two. “
You two, she said, are family and honesty.
From the larger group, the Blank program selected 40 boys and girls to travel to Montana for a week-long program that combined classroom work and speakers with outdoor activities. The aim was to bring the young people into new situations and to force them to work with people they did not know.
Speakers included Shasta Averyhardt, one of the first black women to achieve LPGA Tour status, and Michael Vick, the former NFL quarterback who was sent to jail for his role in an illegal dogfight operation.
“Michael Vick talks to you about life choices,” said Mr. Blank, who was a mentor to Mr. Vick, a former hawk. “He doesn’t talk to them about dog fighting. He talks about making good decisions versus bad decisions. “
Mr. Little said Mr. Vick’s talk was the most memorable moment of the retreat for him because he talked about the impact bad choices can have on your life.
“There is always room to grow,” said Mr. Little of what he had taken from the retreat. “My goal was to see how I can become who I still will be.”
Ms. Ngu said the retreat helped her rethink what she would like to study when she goes to college next year. She was interested in studying architecture, although her real passion is theater. She credited a speech by Ralph Stokes, a black former college football player who is now director of events and partnership marketing for PGA Tour Superstore, for changing her thinking.
“In his speech, he talked about following our dreams and being the first to do something,” she said. “He also talked about the importance of representation, and it’s inspiring to see someone like you.”
The other part of the program that Mr. Blank emphasized in his scholarship was getting the 40 teenagers to study together outdoors and in unfamiliar situations.
“At West Creek, we learn from experience,” he said. “You could do the leadership classes almost anywhere. But we do it at West Creek because they don’t spend 50 percent of their time reading books and lectures. You will learn about risk taking, leadership and character development. These things are transportable. “
Courses included whitewater rafting and horseback riding – the type of group bonding that is common at corporate retreats or wilderness trips to Outward Bound.
Ms. Ngu said her favorite pastime was horse riding, but what stayed with her most was getting to know the other teenagers in her group, who came from all over the country.
“I learned that we are still all the same in our differences,” she said. “When I left on the last day, I wanted to keep in touch with them. I am sad but happy to have met you and I hope to meet you again. “
Greg McLaughlin, chief executive of First Tee, the recipient of the $ 9.5 million grant who helped select teens for the program, said the efforts built on some of First Tee’s work, including Emphasis on nine core values - perseverance, integrity and judgment among them. Most of the teenagers selected for Montana have nearly graduated from high school and have shown an interest in leadership.
Mr. McLaughlin, who attended the first week of the retreat, said the program provided mentoring to help boost teenagers’ self-confidence.
But he said it helped them build relationships with people they had never met before, something First Tee can’t because the participants know each other well.
“Unless you’re a business owner who makes a product and you’re the only employee, you have to work with other people for the rest of your life,” he said. “You have to be able to work with different people, with people who are slower and faster, with people who are difficult and demanding.”
He added, “If you are smart and financially disadvantaged, you can make money. What these children don’t always have is someone to guide them. “
Mr Blank said he thinks his focus on helping teenagers find mentors and learn to be leaders in their communities is a bet on the future and the best use of his philanthropic dollars.
“I think,” he said, “of leveling the playing field as much as possible.”