A Donor Makes a Long-Term Investment: In Mentoring Teens

The wealthy in the United States have long made supporting colleges and universities one of their top priorities, and their money usually goes to projects like a new building, a scholarship fund or an endowment for a professorship.

What is more challenging is developing and funding programs that provide extra support to teenagers who need a boost to stay on track in high school and make the most of college.

One large donor decided to put more money and resources into a mentoring program after seeing how the pandemic, with its switch to online learning, disproportionately affected poor children. While mentoring programs already exist — a major one is the Boys & Girls Clubs — Arthur Blank, one of the co-founders of Home Depot and the owner of the Atlanta Falcons, had a particular vision for one.

“There isn’t anyone in America or the world that hasn’t been affected in a very negative way by this pandemic,” Mr. Blank, 78, said in an interview. “For these young men and women, they don’t always have the tools to deal with what’s happened to them in the pandemic. We’re trying to teach them life skills. If they have more tools, it really does help them.”

Mr. Blank gave $9.5 million last year through his family foundation and his 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, life skills development and values,” Mr. Blank said. “If young people get those right, what they’re doing is going to be meaningful and purposeful.”

Mr. Blank’s program is broken into two parts. The first started with some 300 teenagers at more than two dozen PGA Tour Superstores where there was also a chapter of First Tee, a nationwide program that uses golf to build character and teach life skills to children from 5 to 18 years old. First Tee nominated the participants in the Blank program, many of them from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

The program, over a half-dozen weekends, included practical sessions about different job roles and the finances of, in this case, the golf industry. The program also had what it called introspective exercises to help the teenagers understand their strengths and weaknesses as they apply to college and consider future employment opportunities.

Bernardo Little Jr., 16 and a junior at an Atlanta high school, said taking an assessment of his strengths helped him better understand what he was good at and how that could help him in life.

“It’s how I imagined myself, but I’d never put it in those words,” Mr. Little said, adding that his strengths included putting events in context and always looking to the future. “I use the past to guide the decisions I make for the future. And I’m deliberative. I think a ton before I make a decision.”

Manyi Ngu, 18 and a high school senior in Jacksonville, Fla., said she had gotten the most from an activity, in the first part of the program, that asked the teenagers to pick 10 things or values that mattered the most to them and then narrow the list to five and then two.

“The 10 was easy,” she said. “Going down the line to five was tough. Getting it down to two was hard.”

Her two, she said, were family and honesty.

From the larger group, the Blank program selected 40 boys and girls for the trip to Montana for a weeklong program that combined classroom work and speakers with outdoor activities. The goal was to put the teenagers into new situations and force them to work with people they didn’t know.

Among the speakers were Shasta Averyhardt, one of the first Black women to earn L.P.G.A. Tour status, and Michael Vick, the former N.F.L. quarterback, who was sent to prison for his role in an illegal dogfighting operation.

“Michael Vick talks to them about life choices,” said Mr. Blank, who has been a mentor to Mr. Vick, a former Falcon. “He doesn’t talk to them about dog fighting. He talks about making good choices versus bad choices.”

Mr. Little said Mr. Vick’s talk was the most memorable moment of the retreat for him because he had talked about the impact that bad choices can have on your life.

“There’s always room to grow,” Mr. Little said of what he had taken from the retreat. “My goal in going was to see how I could flourish into the person I’m still becoming.”

Ms. Ngu said the retreat had helped her rethink what she wants to study when she goes to college next year. She had been interested in studying architecture, though her true passion is theater. She credited a speech by Ralph Stokes, a Black former college football player who is now the 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 seeing someone like you do it is inspiring.”

The other part of the program, which Mr. Blank said he stressed in his grant, was to get the 40 teenagers learning together outdoors and in unfamiliar situations.

“At West Creek, we’re learning by experience,” he said. “They could do the leadership classes almost anywhere. But we do it at West Creek because 50 percent of their time is away from the books and the lectures. They’re learning about risk taking, leadership and character development. Those things are transportable.”

The classes included white-water rafting and horseback riding — the type of group bonding common to corporate retreats or Outward Bound-type wilderness trips.

Ms. Ngu said that her favorite activity had been horseback riding, but that what stuck with her most was getting to know the other teenagers in her group, who came from around the country.

“I learned that in our differences we’re still all alike,” she said. “Leaving on the last day, I wanted to stay connected with them. I left sad but happy to have met them and hopeful to meet them again.”

Greg McLaughlin, chief executive of First Tee, which was the recipient of the $9.5 million grant and helped select the teenagers for the program, said the effort was building on some of the work First Tee did, including its emphasis on nine core values — perseverance, integrity and judgment among them. Most of the teenagers selected to go to Montana have almost finished high school and have demonstrated an interest in leadership.

Mr. McLaughlin, who attended the first week of the retreat, said the program provided mentorship-type support to help build the teenagers’ confidence.

But he said it went further in helping them build relationships with people they hadn’t met before, something First Tee can’t do since its participants get to know one another well.

“Unless you’re an entrepreneur who goes out and creates some product and you’re the only employee, you’re going to have to work with other people for the rest of your life,” he said. “You have to be able to work with different people, people who are slower and faster, people who are difficult and demanding.”

He added: “If you’re smart and disadvantaged financially, you can get money. What these kids don’t always have is someone to guide them.”

Mr. Blank said he thought that his focus on helping teenagers find mentors and learn to be leaders in their communities was a bet on the future and the best use of his philanthropic dollars.

“I believe,” he said, “in leveling the playing field as much as I can.”

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