Stephen Powell, executive director of New York-based Mentoring USA, was honored as one of eight "Champions of Change" in a ceremony at the White House Thursday for following in the footsteps of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.
His passion is finding the perfect mentor for each child in need, a project that starts, he said, with changing the collective mindset about the kids who come to his organization for help.
"Children to me are not 'at risk,' they're champions on the cusp," he said in an interview.
Powell, 39, started out as one of those kids. A native of Newark, he lost his father at the age of 5. When he was 14, he realized he was looking for male leadership in his own life, which he eventually found in his high school track and field coaches. He also had peer mentors — older fellow athletes from Clifford J. Scott high in East Orange who went to college, came back, and shared their stories. Powell said for fatherless young black and Latino men, mentoring can be a fork in the road that sets them on a positive path.
"When I connect with single mothers around the U.S., it really reaches my heart because I understand their plight," Powell said.
Mentoring USA serves about 1,000 youth in 12 U.S. cities with a focus on healthy lifestyles, self-esteem, diversity and tolerance, anti-bullying, and financial and media literacy. Boys and girls ages seven to 21 participate in the programs, but Powell said young black and Latino men are the demographic in the greatest need.
Recruiting mentors can be a challenge, but Powell said engaging with potential candidates like a friend instead of like a businessman tends to work.
"It shouldn't really be a sales pitch to become a mentor," he said. "It should be a comfortable reminder that you should be committed to doing this since somebody did it for you."