“Stick to Sports” is one of the worst memes there is, not only because it’s a deflection from whatever the actual discussion is. If the athletes took that advice, people would suffer. Many actually are actually striving to make the world a better place, and we at Dime want to shine the spotlight on them and continue to ask them: please, don’t stick to sports.
When LeBron James spoke together with fellow NBA superstars Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade at the ESPYS in 2016, his words might have been lost in the moment. They were powerful at the time and worthy of headlines, but as with most things in the news cycle, something else was bound to come up.
It’s worth taking a moment to read what LeBron said.
We all feel helpless and frustrated by the violence. We do. But that’s not acceptable. It’s time to look in the mirror and ask ourselves what are we doing to create change. It’s not about being a role model. It’s not about our responsibility to the tradition of activism. I know tonight we’re honoring Muhammad Ali. The GOAT. But to do his legacy any justice, let’s use this moment as a call to action for all professional athletes to educate ourselves. It’s for these issues. Speak up. Use our influence. And renounce all violence. And most importantly, go back to our communities, invest our time, our resources, help rebuild them, help strengthen them, help change them.
We all have to do better. Thank you.
Those words embody the vision of the LeBron James Family Foundation (LJFF). LeBron doesn’t just donate money or time; he does with a view of trying to build up communities. Watch any Cleveland Cavaliers game, and you’ll see LeBron James is wearing a bracelet. If you could see it closely, you would see the words “I Promise” written on it.
“I Promise” is a commitment that LeBron makes to more than 1,200 “at risk” students identified by Akron public schools.
Their promise to him includes a list of things, including going to school, doing their homework, making good choices, never giving up, and above all, to finish school. They can recite the promise by heart. His promise to them is that he will be a good role-model and that if they keep their promise, his foundation and The University of Akron has committed to them a free college education. But this is more than just a scholarship program, and to view it as such would be to sell it short. It quite literally changes lives because it doesn’t just ask kids to make empty promises, it helps them to fulfill it.
In fact, the kids take these promises so seriously, their parents will warn them, “If you don’t keep your promise, we’re going to tell LeBron!” And the kids get in shape faster than if Santa was making a list and checking it twice.
That’s because LeBron is not only a real person, he’s really engaged with them. For example, when there is a big test coming up, he’ll record a phone call to go out to all the students encouraging them to study and be prepared. If a kid is missing class, they’ll receive a robocall from LeBron reminding them of their promise. The kids feel a genuine connection there, and that makes a big difference.
LeBron also has what he calls “330 Ambassadors,” which consist of 23 high school kids who represent LeBron. When they walk into a room, everyone knows LeBron sent them. And the ambassadors also help out in other communities to extend their reach. For instance, every All-Star break, they do service projects out in the city hosting the NBA All-Star Game. In 2017, they helped repair New Orleans homes still left in shambles due to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
Casandra Morrow talked about what the program has meant to her 10-year-old daughter, Alannah Washington, who s in her third year of the program. Akron Public Schools selects the children based on test scores and other criteria. Then mails out a letter to the parents. Casandra spoke about how she and her husband Shawn Washington, a meat manager at Restaurant Depot in Akron reacted when they got the letter.
“We didn’t even have to discuss it; it wasn’t even a thought,” Casandra says, “it was like, absolutely! We were all very excited, but we didn’t have very much information as to what it all included at the time. So we accepted it, and since then it’s been remarkable. Not only do they do the educational part, but if she’s doing good and meeting all her requirements, then they give back.”
One example of giving back is an annual trip to Cedar Point, a large regional amusement park. In partnership with Cedar Point, LeBron’s Foundation helps cover everything, including transportation, food, and rides for all the kids and their families. It’s highlighted by a visit from LeBron himself to give a pep talk to the kids. It’s the kind of trip a lot of these kids wouldn’t ever be able to experience. For some of them, it’s a whole family vacation packed into one day.
They also get a chance to go to games as a reward for good performance. They even have a little section at Quicken Loans Arena for Cavs games. Alannah has gotten to go twice.
“She was ecstatic,” Casandra said, laughing. “She kept yelling, ‘LeBron!’ trying to get his attention, not realizing he couldn’t hear her over a million people.”
The program also goes beyond just doing homework and getting good grades. The children take field trips and get tours to see what different people do for a living. The whole idea is to expand the horizons of the kids to imagine what they can do for a living if they finish their college education. For instance, LeBron’s 9th graders recently took a trip to the arena where they spoke with people responsible for things like ticket sales or marketing.
As they get older, the I Promise kids are required to do a certain amount of community service. By learning to give back themselves, they also gain the feeling of doing something positive for others. That’s empowering, and empowerment breeds hope.
Casandra shared about the impact on her daughter. It’s affected her grades: “She brings home As and Bs; I don’t even think I see a C anymore.”
And it’s enlarged Alannah’s vision: “At 10-years-old, she’s experienced more than I have in my whole life, and I’m beyond grateful.”
These are kids who were once categorized as “at-risk” that LeBron has dubbed, “chosen ones.” The difference in their lives cannot be understated. Alannah is so excited about being part of the LJFF that every time the mail comes, she has to check it see if there’s something for her. “We’re not even allowed to check it!” Casandra joked.
That they are excited about school and hopeful for the future is a monumental change.
But it’s not just Alannah who has experienced the benefit of the program. At a certain point, the LJFF started to realize that not all the kids could get homework help from their parents because not all their parents had a high school education.
So, they started offering help to parents to get their GED through “I Promise Too,” and Casandra is one of the first to benefit from that.
“It made my goals a lot more realistic. You know, when you go and put in an application at a job, and they say you have to have a GED or high-school diploma, I would just run away. At the end of the day, I knew I didn’t have that. So, now it makes it a little bit easier to walk into a job and not feel that pressure.
“It’s the ease; it’s the satisfaction that not only can I prove to my daughter that it’s never too late, but also to strive for better and accomplish better.”
And even beyond that, there’s a sense within the entire program of helping one another. The “family” isn’t just LeBron and his wife and kids. The “family” is all the families that are involved in the program. “We are family” is a big aspect of it.
Casandra explains how that helped her in getting her GED: “In the ‘I Promise To’ class we started off being strangers and ended up being friends. And not only that, like we pushed each other along. If people didn’t show up fo a class for whatever reason, I would always reach out and ask, ‘are you OK, why aren’t you in class?’ So, we would always encourage each other to keep going.
So, you can see how this program helps kids, but it’s not just kids that it helps. It extends to the community as parents can get help they need, and in that, find hope themselves. So, when LeBron talks about going back to help rebuild communities, he’s not speaking hollow words. He’s doing it. And now the program is looking to build even more, as it opens its first public school (note that is not a charter school).
According to the official press release:
As a culmination of years of LJFF’s on-the-ground work and research-based interventions to help keep students in school and on track to earn their educations, the proposed vision for the I PROMISE School is an expansion of APS curriculum with a STEM, hands-on, problem-based learning focus infused with LJFF’s “We Are Family” philosophy to create an innovative and supportive learning environment for its students and their families.
“This school is so important to me because our vision is to create a place for the kids in Akron who need it most – those that could fall through the cracks if we don’t do something,” said LeBron James. “We’ve learned over the years what works and what motivates them, and now we can bring all of that together in one place along with the right resources and experts. If we get to them early enough, we can hopefully keep them on the right track to a bigger and brighter future for themselves and their families.”
Fortunately, LeBron is not “sticking to sports.” And chances are he never will. As a result, over 1,300 young lives, not counting their families or the ambassadors, are benefitting from his help.
Casandra hasn’t met LeBron in person yet, but she choked up a bit in relaying why she wishes she could.
“Most people would want to meet him because of the fact he’s famous and a basketball player. I want to meet him just to tell him, ‘Thank you.’”