A Long, Lasting Influence on Educational Equality | Longreads Feature
As the Philadelphia Eagles start the 2018-19 NFL season, defensive end Chris Long is also committed to making wins off the field by creating educational equity for students in the United States.
“Chris Long gave his paychecks from the first six games of the NFL season to fund scholarships in Charlottesville, VA. He wanted to do more, so he decided to give away an entire season’s salary. That’s a story from 2017.”
Barack Obama’s tweet, from December 29, 2017, was retweeted more than 66,000 times and received 268,000-plus likes. The message was one of several tweets in which President Obama shared stories that “remind us what’s best about America.”
Long announced on October 18, 2017, that in addition to donating his first six paychecks of the 2017 season to academic scholarships in his hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, he would also donate his final ten paychecks (a total base salary of around $1 million) to launch Pledge 10 For Tomorrow, a campaign to promote educational equity in the three cities where he’d played professional football — St. Louis, Boston, and Philadelphia. Ever since then, the Philadelphia Eagles defensive end has garnered national headlines and social media coverage, and appeared on talk shows. A reporter from one national outlet shadowed Long on that October day, chronicling how the NFL veteran spent his hours. For Long, who established his own philanthropic foundation in 2015 and who has donated to charitable endeavors throughout his now 11-year NFL career, the day was in many ways, decidedly ordinary.
“I had toyed with the idea [of donating my salary] when I wasn’t sure how badly I wanted to play last year,” Long, 33, says. “To be clear, no one over the age of thirty is that excited about playing another year, no matter what. So I thought, to make this year meaningful, it’d be cool to do something really impactful. It’d make it easier to come to work, and it’d be a good thing to do.”
Other pro athletes have given millions of dollars to philanthropic causes over the years; the matching funds raised by Long’s Pledge 10 campaign generated another $1.3 million in donations, bringing the total raised to $1.75 million. However, the magnitude of Long’s actions, particularly in the wake of a tumultuous year of racial and social injustices that peaked with the events and violence on August 11 and 12 in Charlottesville, resonated beyond the professional sports sphere.
“When Charlottesville happened, that lit a fire under me,” Long says. “Our hometown has taken such a hit, so I needed to do something public and positive there. This is a time for people to do something positive in general.”
As 2018 began, mentions of Long’s philanthropy resumed, particularly after he became only the fourth player in NFL history to play in and win a second consecutive Super Bowl while playing for two different teams, this one as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles (he’d won a Super Bowl in 2017 with the New England Patriots).
But what hadn’t been written was an in-depth look at who those paycheck recipients were — and more importantly, what populations they serve in working toward education for all. Each nonprofit, selected by Long and his foundation director, Nicole Woodie, after months of research, interviews, and meetings, has made a significant impact not only in their respective cities, but throughout the country.
This is the story of those organizations — and why Long’s donations will have an influence long after he retires from football.
On a cloudy Tuesday morning this June, several volunteers from the Little Bit Foundation and Bank of America stood outside Hodgen elementary school in St. Louis. Rain had poured down a half hour earlier; now, as the humidity remained, small puddles formed on sidewalks and in the pothole-ridden streets adjacent to the school. An elderly woman slowly approached a makeshift tent, under which 5,000 pounds of food had been laid out in bins and crates, cafeteria-style.
Lucy England, Little Bit’s volunteer manager, greeted the woman with a big hug. “Hello! Come on over and get some food!” England said, ushering the woman toward the stacks. The older woman filled two bags with sweet potatoes, watermelon, bread, and chicken, before thanking the volunteers and walking away.
Minutes later, a white pickup truck pulled up and two young men stepped out. As they talked with the volunteers, they filled five bags with food, noting that they planned to deliver some offerings to their neighbors.
The Little Bit Foundation’s Mobile Food Market, in partnership with the St. Louis Area Food Bank, runs the fourth Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of each month, from 9 a.m. to around 12 p.m., in three locations around St. Louis. The free, healthy grocery initiative is just one of the many programs supported by Little Bit, one of the two St. Louis–area nonprofit recipients of Long’s Pledge 10 initiative.
“The thing that’s lovely here is no one has to show any documentation — if you find your way here, you’re meant to be here,” England says. “We say, ‘You’re here, let’s get you loaded up. What do you like? What can you use?’ That really brings out the best in people — it’s empowering to have choices.”
Empowerment and choice is central to the work of the Little Bit Foundation, which serves children in poverty throughout the St. Louis area with an all-encompassing approach designed to address the needs of each child through a focus on academic enrichment, food access, health, and self-esteem. The idea behind Little Bit is simple: If children are warm, outfitted, clean, well-fed, and treated with love and kindness, they will perform better in school. So Little Bit provides books for children to read and new school supplies, outfits them with new socks, clothing, coats, and hygiene kits, offers health and dental screenings and mental health counseling, and provides nutritious food — all for free.
The idea for Little Bit grew out of a simple request for coats. In 2001, the son of Little Bit’s executive director and cofounder Rosemary Hanley was playing on a high school soccer team, and the team’s head coach asked several parents to gather coats to donate as a community service project. Hanley spearheaded collection along with another parent, and the two distributed the coats to those in need.
An elementary school principal heard about what Hanley had done and asked if she could gather coats for his students. Again, Hanley went to work, asking friends to donate new and gently used coats. On a winter morning a day later, Hanley stood outside the elementary school with trash bags filled with almost 200 coats, waiting for the doors to open.
As she stood in the cold, a little boy ran up. “Look — my dad let me wear his coat today!” the boy said, grinning up at Hanley as he held his arms up in the air. The leather jacket’s zipper was broken, and the coat was several sizes too big. He talked to Hanley as she waited; once the school doors opened, he said goodbye and ran off to class.
Later, as the students came through the principal’s office to be fitted for coats, the same little boy stood in front of her. As Hanley zipped him into a snug, well-fitting navy coat, she placed the hood over his head. The boy grinned at her and said, “My dad is going to be so happy that I’m warm.”
“I thought to myself, ‘I live where I have everything I could possibly need — I’m not rich, but I do,’” Hanley remembered. “How can children be ten minutes from where I live, and be cold, hungry, and not have what they need? And that thought just wouldn’t leave me.”
She began emailing friends, asking them to drop off gently used clothing, coats — anything they could spare. The operation started in her cofounder’s basement; she established the beginnings of the Little Bit Foundation later that year (they received official 501(c)(3) status in 2006). Slowly, the nonprofit grew, expanding to other initiatives in working to end the poverty cycle and allow children a better path to education.
According to the 2018 Missouri Poverty Report, 24 percent of St. Louis City residents, including children, are living in poverty. Last year, Little Bit served 9,728 children in 31 St. Louis–area schools. In selecting partner schools, Little Bit’s main criteria is that 90 to 100 percent of the student body qualifies for free and reduced lunch, meaning they are living at or below the federal poverty line. “Since, unfortunately, many schools in St. Louis fall within this category, we first consider schools with the greatest need and the fewest resources,” Stacy Lupo, Little Bit’s communications director, says. “Most importantly, the leadership of our partner schools must be aligned with our mission and committed to its success, with a dedicated school liaison who will work directly with Little Bit volunteers and staff.”
Volunteers for Little Bit worked a total of 12,480 hours in 2017 and 2018. And they have plans to serve many more; Hanley often repeated a business-like mantra during a several-hour visit: “We are not fooling around — we take this work very seriously.”
Two or three volunteers greet the students at their respective school every week, offering them a hug or a high five inside the Little Bit Boutique, which is often set up inside a large closet or extra classroom space within the school.
The boutique has both gently used “emergency” items and newly purchased “new” items, the latter of which are ordered for a particular child every week. There are books, stuffed animals, hygiene kits, and school supplies, and each boutique has a pop-up tent that serves as a makeshift dressing room. The most requested new items? Underwear and socks.
All items are purchased new. If a young boy has outgrown his old pair of shoes, a Little Bit volunteer measures his shoe size and orders him a new pair. Emergency, gently used items are given to children with an immediate need. For example, if a little girl has lost her winter coat, the Little Bit volunteer gives her an emergency coat and then sizes her for a new coat, which is delivered the following week.
Each boutique has another essential element: a full-length mirror. “One thing we’re trying to improve is student self-esteem, so no kid walks out of here without looking into that mirror and smiling at themselves,” Alex Goodfellow, Little Bit’s program director, says. “It brightens your day.”
The one-on-one interaction is also pivotal. Volunteers provide continuity in schools where teacher and staff turnover is often high; one elementary school volunteer, Al Hinch, said he’d seen three different principals come through the school where he has volunteered with Little Bit over the past six years.
“Attendance and behavioral problems improve when we can give this kind of attention,” Maureen Bahn, a 17-year volunteer with Little Bit, says. “We pick up every time something is going on with that kid. We are another support system.”
Bahn recalled a recent school visit, when a little girl came into the boutique with her clothes soaked in urine. Little Bit also outfits each school with a washer and dryer, so the school nurse washed the young girls’ clothes while Bahn helped her pick out new underwear, shorts, socks, and shoes.
The Little Bit Foundation warehouse, which stores all of the donated and purchased items, is 33,000 square feet. Three full-time staff members (Little Bit has 20 full-time employees working out of their offices), as well as a host of volunteers, work in the warehouse each day, which Little Bit moved into last July. The entire system is extremely organized: donations and purchases are sorted and labeled by age, gender, and size; an organization-wide database system allows Little Bit to track each child that they serve. Volunteers at each school have a tablet that contains the same technology system, so they can input each item as it’s given out. During the 2017–2018 school year, Little Bit moved over 337,000 items, which averages out to about 9,300 items per week.
“The opportunity with Chris Long, we didn’t see this as ‘Oh isn’t this sweet,’ we saw it as ‘Let’s shine the light on what’s going on in our city that’s positive, so we can change the narrative,’” Hanley says. “Let’s build the momentum around what we’re doing, with his help, so that we can really move that needle and promote change.”
Colby Heckendorn, 36, is beginning his fifth year as principal at Patrick Henry Downtown Academy elementary school, which has worked in partnership with Little Bit for 13 years.
“It takes so much stress off of families, who love their kids and want to provide everything possible, but sometimes just can’t,” Heckendorn says. “Little Bit fills that void, and the kids are just blown away by the kindness. They don’t fully understand all the work that goes on behind the scenes, but they are so excited to come into school with a clean, new uniform that’s ready to go.”
Long visited Patrick Henry Downtown Academy on March 22, 2018, spending time at a boutique as the children came through. “Dignity is so important for anybody,” Long says. “Then to have that resource of Little Bit, it kind of blew me away. It was hard enough for me as a student, and I had everything I needed. I can’t imagine not having a coat, not having a toothbrush, not having basic hygiene — all that stuff you need when you’re a kid.”
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“Do you remember your biggest childhood dream?” 23-year-old Tiana Glass asked the audience at College Bound’s annual spring gala. “Dreaming has always been something sacred and precious to me; I could be a black girl prodigy today, a hero tomorrow, and your president next week. Dreaming was my refuge, for the times when the world became too much for me to handle.”
College Bound was the second St. Louis–area nonprofit recipient of Long’s donations. Founded in 2006 by Lisa Orden Zarin, College Bound helps students from low-income backgrounds prepare for and apply to college through a myriad of programs. College Bound stays with each student for seven to nine years, supporting them throughout college and as they prepare to enter the workforce or apply to graduate school.
Through their four-step “To and Through” program, College Bounds assists its students in four main arenas. The first step focuses on college readiness, which develops academic, social, and emotional competencies through one-on-one tutoring, ACT prep, coaching, grade monitoring, and academic skills curriculum as well as extracurriculars such as leadership camps and community service.
In step two, which focuses on college access, students prepare to apply to a four-year college or university. College Bound helps with financial coursework, navigating the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), finding summer opportunities, and obtaining financial counseling.
College completion, or step three, starts in 12th grade and continues until the student graduates from a four-year college or university. Throughout college, CB students have regular contact and support, transportation to and from their college or university, connections to academic advisors, and individual financial counseling.
Finally, in the last step — career readiness — each student develops “soft skills” and awareness of and exposure to potential careers. To achieve this, College Bound offers job shadowing, tours, panels with working professionals, paid internships, mentoring programs, and specific career-prep programming.
Zarin founded College Bound after watching her son, a privileged student from a private school, navigate the college admissions process. She researched the St. Louis area and learned that while 75 percent of high-income students applied to and graduated from four-year colleges and universities, less than 9 percent of low-income students achieved the same results.
In 2006, the first class of 36 College Bound students applied to college. Today, College Bound serves more than 600 students in their direct-service program, another 150 through their partnership with St. Louis Community College, and 250 more students indirectly through their Get Your Prep On college preparatory curriculum, FAFSA completion, and college counselor engagement. Currently, College Bound students attend 44 St. Louis area high schools and 74 colleges nationwide.
“We are able to commit to our students for a long period of time and with a depth that other organizations normally aren’t able to,” College Bound executive director Scott Baier says. “We are with them for the next seven to nine years, not just ensuring the transactional and important things, but also that they have the academic, mental, and social skills that they can thrive once on campus.”
That empowerment manifests in many ways. Since elementary school, Hassan Owens had been an intelligent, hard-working student, but his family didn’t have the resources for him to apply to college. Owens joined College Bound during his sophomore year of high school. Almost immediately, he signed up for an ACT prep course, ultimately improving his ACT score by three points. College Bound helped him get the test fees waived, so he could take it multiple times and earn a better grade. Additionally, College Bound helped Owens set up college visits, assisting him not only in funding the visits, but also in evaluating and understanding what type of institution he might want to attend. “He is so coachable, he is so smart, but what he needed were very concrete resources: applying for the FAFSA, which we did during his senior year and every year after while he’s in college,” Baier says. “It’s a small step, but one that trips up many first-generation college students.”
After graduating as the valedictorian of his high school class, Owens earned a full scholarship to Xavier University in Louisiana.
“College Bound provided me with the knowledge and access to all of these tools,” Owens, now 22, said. “The sad part is there are many students like me, who are smart and eager to attend college, but who are prevented from doing so because they are scared by the cost of college or not completing forms (like FAFSA) on time. First-generation students are told, ‘Go to college and change your life circumstances,’ but it’s not that simple.”
Owens graduated from Xavier University this past spring in the top 10 of his class; he’ll start medical school at UCLA in the fall, on essentially a full scholarship.
For Glass, a woman who joined College Bound after her sophomore year of high school, the mental health support was just as vital as the academic support. Glass joined College Bound during her sophomore year of high school. She’d been depressed for years, after being diagnosed with a learning disability and a speech impediment. Because of this, she says that teachers often underestimated her or dismissed her ability in the classroom. By the time she found College Bound, she was borderline suicidal.
College Bound has two full-time mental health professionals on staff, both of whom are licensed clinical social workers, in addition to two practicum students, who work with many of the College Bound students, 93 percent of whom are people of color. As Glass pointed out, students at low-income schools often have minimal — if any — access to mental health professionals.
When she met one of the College Bound wellness coaches, Jenn Starks, Glass says her life turned around. Through one-on-one as well as group counseling, Glass healed from past traumas and discovered self-empowerment. “I am sincere when I say that I would not be here today had it not been for College Bound,” Glass says.
Glass graduated from the University of Missouri, Columbia, this past December. After winning an entrepreneurial contest via a business incubator with her newly developed vegan cosmetic line, Black Honey Bee Cosmetics, designed for women of color and LGBTQ women, Glass is confident in who she is and where she wants to go.
With a staff of 42, College Bound works in so many ways with a variety of populations, including helping immigrant families of College Bound students understand the process of gaining legal status. And they continue to find new ways to grow. This past year, College Bound introduced a partnership program with St. Louis Community College. Baier had learned that the school’s graduation rate was only 9.6 percent. So College Bound set up an office to carry out what Baier calls “intrusive counseling,” meeting with each student, on average, 16 times a semester, in order to help the student population work toward graduating. The specific population that College Bound worked with had an average graduation rate of between 1 and 3.1 percent, so the need was great.
“Intrusive means that our coaches are actively texting and calling and communicating with our students, to help nudge them along the way so they know what’s coming down the pipe,” Baier says. “Students enrolled in community college often don’t know the resources they need, so we ask what they need and then we help figure it out — issues like financial aid — so they’re keeping their focus on what happens in class.”
College Bound is also working on early college credit initiatives — by 2022, they hope to have 100 percent of College Bound students achieve some kind of early credit.
“Everyone thinks there’s something magic about doing this,” Baier says. “And while our students are phenomenal, it’s really about resources. Look at what kids from overprivileged backgrounds are able to do — that’s the playing field we’re trying to level. I want sixty-five percent of College Bound students to graduate within five years because that would put us on par with the highest income quintile out there — that they graduate with less than $35,000 in debt and three quarters are employed or in graduate school or in meaningful service twelve months post-college.”
“We are very interested in the social justice mission that Chris promotes and the manner in which he does it,” Baier says. “That’s one thing got me really excited; you normally don’t find people like Chris Long, who are willing to take risks in using their celebrity for good.”
Dhruval Thakkar moved with his family from India to Boston three and a half years ago. As a high school sophomore, Thakker had never visited the United States. He spoke almost no English, and despite his warm, friendly personality, he felt lost. “It was hard,” he says of his first days at West Roxbury High School in Boston.
His English teacher recommended that Thakkar apply for Summer Search, the Boston-area recipient of Long’s donations.
In 1990, Summer Search founder Linda Mornell was working as an adolescent counselor in private practice in the Bay Area. All three of Mornell’s children attended summer programs — first, Outward Bound, then National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) — during their high school years. Her son, an active athlete, loved Outward Bound. Her oldest daughter, however, hated the idea of the program before she’d even started. Unathletic, afraid of heights and the dark, Mornell’s daughter went on the trip “involuntarily,” Mornell says. “And she probably got the most out of it. Before, she approached everything with ‘I can’t.’ While on Outward Bound, they gave her a new nickname: Sara Can. And she came home Sara Can.’”
Later that year, Mornell’s youngest daughter was a junior at a private high school. Mornell picked her up at school one afternoon and saw a young man standing outside. He looked uncomfortable, “ill at ease,” Mornell remembered. She asked her daughter about him, and her daughter said he was on a full scholarship. “And I thought, ‘Wow, what must it feel like to come back to school every fall with kids who’ve gone to Switzerland or who’ve traveled the world. So I thought, ‘I’m going to start a program so that kid will have a story to tell when he comes home.’”
In that first summer of 1990, Summer Search sent 14 students — including the young man outside of the school — from low-income backgrounds on all-expenses-paid trips. The young man, Mornell learned, had never been outside of his neighborhood in south San Francisco. He’d never been to Oakland; he’d never traveled on a plane. He flew to Bali and spent six weeks with the group, working a community service project.
However, while the trip was successful, after the group returned Mornell sensed the students had lost the energy and excitement from their journeys. “One single intervention isn’t helpful for kids who have trauma and deprivation — you have to have a more sustained effort,” Mornell says.
So in 1992, she added a second fully funded summer experience, as well as year-round mentoring for each student, whereby the student talked with Mornell each week to discuss everything from school interests, collegiate possibilities, family issues, and personal development. The student’s second summer experience, following their junior year of high school, caters toward their individual interests. They can choose an academic experience, such as enrolling in courses at Columbia University; they can select an international learning experience, such as studying sustainable energy in Costa Rica; or they can decide to return to the wilderness for a second outdoor experience.
“The importance of that second trip, that service experience, is that all our students understand that they have something to contribute,” Hermese Velasquez, executive director of Summer Search Boston, says.
For the next five years, Mornell was the only staff member working with the program’s 100 students. In 1996, she hired two staff members — and the program grew from there.
Now a national nonprofit for high school students based in five cities (the Bay Area, Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and Seattle), Summer Search has served more than 6,600 youth to date, many of whom have become the first member of their families to attend college.
“There’s a brain drain in summertime,” Sylvia McKinney, executive director of Summer Search Philadelphia, says. “Students who have a positive educational experience in the summer tend to start off well-prepared, ready, and engaged for school, whereas students who don’t have that experience take until about January to make that transition.”
Summer Search Boston, founded in 1996 as the second Summer Search location, serves roughly 1,000 students each year, in partnership with 33 area schools. The median household income for the students they serve is $24,000; a high percentage of the students are recent immigrants to the United States.
For his first summer experience, Thakker traveled to Wyoming for a 30-day outdoor adventure; he’d never spent a night away from his family before. In the woods, Thakker, learned survival skills, such as how to cook (“pasta isn’t that hard,” he said, laughing), how to be a leader, and what it means to work on a team. He also learned about adaptation. “No shower for 30 days — that was a lot,” Thakker says, smiling as he brushed his long, dark, wavy hair from his forehead.
Last summer, for his second Summer Search experience, Thakker spent 17 days in Nicaragua, teaching English to area residents.
Thakker’s mentor has proven vital to his development. “My mentor, Armani, is the coolest person I’ve ever met,” Thakker says. “He’s been such a great support in my professional and personal life, both when it comes to the college process and me being able to adapt to the community here.”
During his senior year, Thakker was repeatedly bullied by a fellow student. Thakker and the student were competing for the same scholarship, via a foundation that would provide four years of fully paid tuition at one of six select higher-education institutions. Out of 1,400 students originally selected for consideration, Thakker and the student bullying him were two of the top 20 finalists. On the day of the final interviews, a nervous Thakker met with Armani. While the conversation boosted his self-confidence, Thakker ultimately didn’t receive the scholarship. The student bullying him did.
“Honestly, that news broke me,” Thakker says. “But Armani told me how everything happens for a reason, and he taught me to always look at the positive side. He showed me how now, I could apply to any colleges, whereas the scholarship recipients are limited to six particular schools.”
Thakker felt like he’d disappointed his family, and he worried over how his parents would pay for his college education. But in talking to Armani, he learned not to see the process as a failure.
“Armani was like another parent in the times when I needed a parent but I didn’t feel right to talk to my parents about this,” Thakker says. “He helped me learn that I didn’t let anyone down, but that everyone was proud of me for getting this far. I did lose in the last rounds, but I got something out of it. There was someone who believed in me.”
Each Summer Search mentor is trained extensively, both by a master trainer out of the national office as well as in the San Francisco Summer Search headquarters. Training essentially involves working with the mentors on the skills of being a keen listener while also holding students accountable and ensuring they follow through. Some mentors have a master’s degree in social work, though it isn’t required.
“I think once kids realize you won’t interrupt them, you won’t direct them, that you will just listen, they start talking and they can’t stop,” Mornell says. “It’s an incredibly rare experience.”
“A large part of our population comes here from one country and then a large part of their identity is missing, so sometimes those foundations aren’t fully developed,” Pedro Suncar, a mentor now in his third year with Summer Search Boston, says. “Not being able to connect to cultures and see how other people do things creates a silo. So the concept of travel and being able to say you’ve been somewhere and seen that is a reason I think the program is so successful.”
Summer Search Boston executive director Hermese Velasquez is a former Summer Search student, which is where she first discovered her love of travel. During her second summer experience, teaching math to schoolchildren in Ghana, Velasquez immersed herself in the culture. She lived with a host family and rode the bus to and from the school each day.
“That taught me that regardless of where I came from, I have this really, really strong gift to contribute to the world,” Velasquez, a native of Belize, says.
Long’s donation, combined with the fundraising match initiative, brought in close to half a million dollars to support Summer Search Boston and Philadelphia. But perhaps more importantly, Velasquez says, it raised Summer Search’s public profile. “The Summer Search bus became greater. We experienced a lot of new folks in the room this year, and that to me is more important in some ways, because we’re generating new partnerships and relationships with folks in this city who didn’t know about us before,” Velasquez says.
Thakker interned at Boston Children’s Hospital this summer. He watched intense conversations between doctors and parents, and observed as surgeons broke difficult news to young children. Growing up in India, Thakker planned to become an engineer. But his experiences through Summer Search, he says, have reinforced his desire to become a surgeon. He’ll start classes at Wheaton College this fall.
“I feel like the way I’ve gotten here today was Summer Search,” Thakker says. “They have been there to help me in every aspect of my life.”
Thirty-four parents crowded into the Mariana Bracetti Academy classroom in northeast Philadelphia, hugging their knees as they sat on undersize chairs; others stood along the back wall, fiddling with their cell phones. One father held his baby boy in his arms, offering him a bottle, as he watched his toddler son run around the table. Another mom handed her adolescent son a tablet to play on, as she took out a pen and notebook to take notes.
“All right, all right! Are we all here? Is everyone a parent of a sophomore?”
Alex Cromer, a Summer Search program associate, stood at the front of the room, dressed in jeans and a short-sleeved white shirt, her nose piercing reflecting off of the classroom’s fluorescent lights. As the assembled group nodded collectively, Cromer began outlining what the Summer Search wilderness trip would be like for the students, whose family members had gathered here for information — and reassurance.
“My son has never been in an airport before,” Trena Medford said, referring to her son, 16-year-old Tymir Hill. “I can’t come after my baby if he gets lost. How do I know he’s going to the right place? And you said to only pack three shirts? He is going to get funky!”
Several other parents murmured in agreement before another parent interjected.
“I thought my daughter was taking a bus to New York or something? When will she be at the airport?”
“All these fears are so valid,” Cromer said calmly, nodding. “First, you would know if your student is getting on a plane or a train, because I’ve talked to you, and also, your student should know.”
“Well, my son doesn’t really talk to me — he only texts!” a mom yelled out, as the other parents laughed and echoed their agreement.
“Ninety percent of you, your kids are getting on a shuttle bus,” Cromer said. “For those other ten percent, when your students are flying in somewhere, there will be someone with a big sign, greeting them. We’ve been working with all these partner organizations for years now, and we’ve established relationships with them. I can assure you, we keep doing it because it works.”
Summer Search Philadelphia is the youngest chapter of the nationwide program. Just over a decade old, the Philadelphia office has served 249 students since its inception — and it’s growing. Last year, thanks in large part to Long’s donation, they moved from serving 25 rising high school juniors to 37. Their staff of seven employees works with five area schools (they’re in conversation to add two more schools in 2019) in selecting their students.
The bond between mentor and student is evident; as the parents and students gathered in the MBA cafeteria before the breakout sessions, filling plastic plates with Boston Market chicken, green beans, and mac ’n’ cheese, excited students hugged their mentors and introduced them to family members.
Several students wore Eagles T-shirt jerseys; Philadelphia is a sports town, and the Eagles have long brought together the diverse population in a way that few other teams, organizations, or leaders have done. When Long announced that Summer Search Philadelphia would be one of his recipients, “every time he played a game, we became part of the narrative,” McKinney says. “In a city like Philadelphia, that’s just boomtown.”
Long attended the Summer Search fall celebration last October. In addition to adding more students, McKinney says that Long’s donation helped overall by increasing school, nonprofit, and organizational partnerships, while also raising Summer Search’s profile in public policy discussions. They even created an “Ed Talk” series, mirroring TED Talks, but focused on education.
Like other Summer Search offices, the need in Philly is far greater than the number of students they can serve. Over 170 students applied to the program this past fall. After the several-step application process, including multiple interviews, the final 35 were chosen.
“All of our students come with many skills, but they may not have had the access to exercise those opportunities,” Velasquez says. “We give them the opportunity to open the door slightly, and they barge in and take control of all that we’ve provided to them. They begin to grow and thrive and soar after that.”
Seventeen-year-old Maria Jiminez began Summer Search in the fall of 2017. As she sat in the cafeteria and talked about her first experience, she tapped her long, eloquently painted fingernails on the table.
“I’m the type of person who likes to go out and explore, so I felt like this was something for me,” Jiminez said. “To have an organization and a mentor that I can talk to about how I’m feeling, her always being there to give me advice — I love her so much and she is someone I can trust with anything. For me to have these type of people in my life, that’s really important.”
Raja Mitchell, 18, is the oldest of five kids. A recent graduate of Boys’ Latin Philadelphia Charter School, Mitchell first heard about Summer Search through his school. When Mitchell’s principal recommended him for Summer Search, Mitchell didn’t hesitate.
“It’s just a really good program,” Mitchell says. “My mentors helped me so much through high school. You can call them with anything, and they’re always there to answer.”
For his senior project, a mandatory 10-page paper and a 50-hour internship, Mitchell’s mentor, Program Manager and Summer Programs’ Specialist Erin Callison helped him find an internship at the Energy Co-Op in Philadelphia. There, he studied renewable and sustainable energies. The internship built on Mitchell’s second Summer Search experience, when he’d spent three weeks in Costa Rica studying sustainable energy resources. Mitchell grew coffee on green energy farms, helped to build a basketball court for local residents and took Spanish with local school children. Now, after college, he hopes to either enter the sports medicine field — or work in sustainable energy.
“He was always responsible, but this has made him grow into a man,” Mitchell’s mother, Nicole, said. “It has really changed his life.”
“Visiting with Summer Search made me smile,” Long says. “These are high schoolers, and they’ve had to grow up quick. You can tell this program … it’s created hope. And a glimpse of what life is like outside of that bubble they’ve lived in. It was great to hear stories of some of the experiences and the people they’ve met.”
Despite his mother’s travel concerns, Tymir Hill arrived in Colorado without incident. Each Summer Searcher has to pass a baseline fitness test, which includes hiking three miles in 45 minutes. While Hill had passed that test, the six-foot, 230-pound 16-year-old had never visited a location at altitude. A few days into his hiking adventure with his fellow participants, his 40-pound backpack on his back, Hill passed out. He was helicoptered to a nearby hospital, where doctors diagnosed him with dehydration.
Medford retold the story of her son’s (mis)adventures with a laugh, noting with sincerity how the staff kept her appraised of the situation throughout his brief hospital stay. Even though she wanted “her baby” to come home, Hill insisted that he wanted to stay. He loved his Colorado experience. He recently went on a six-day trip to Iceland with his school, and he is already planning his Summer Search adventure for 2019. Medford, in turn, said she has learned to relinquish control and to trust her son’s instincts.
“With single-parent households like mine, particularly of a young man living in this city, there are so many fear factors,” Medford said. “As a single mom, I can’t teach him to be a man — evidently this can. Summer Search is like the best baby daddy ever.”
At the final event of the evening informational session, a scheduled open mic time allowed for graduating seniors to offer impromptu remarks about what Summer Search has meant to them. As they stood in a single-file line near the auditorium’s stage, some opened with private jokes for their classmates and others gave a “shout out” to their group, their mentor, then the other mentors, and on and on. But many messages were impassioned and sincere.
“If I would’ve listened to fear, I wouldn’t be here,” Shay Smith, a graduating senior said. “This whole experience has really helped me find out who I am. All of this is preparing us for something great. I have done so much because of Summer Search.”
McKinney has a loud, infectious laugh, and her intelligence and determination shines through whenever she speaks. At times, her passion for Summer Search feels part advocate, part evangelical. “Is there need for this? Absolutely!” McKinney says, her voice rising. “Would I want every student to have the opportunity to go through this process? Absolutely. We need to grow. We have no choice. Because the need is way too great and the service that we provide is way too dynamic to serve so few.”
Chris Long’s alma mater, St. Anne’s-Belfield School (STAB), is spread out across two campuses in Charlottesville. The Upper School, serving grades 9 through 12, sits on a sloping hill just off of UVA’s campus (or Grounds, if speaking in Thomas Jefferson’s vernacular). The coeducational, independent boarding and day school for preschool through 12th grade dates back to 1910.
More recently, Long and both of his brothers (Kyle Long, an offensive guard for the Chicago Bears) and Howie Jr. (who works for the Oakland Raiders) attended STAB, which Long graduated from in 2004 before heading up the street to play football for the UVA. In 2009, one year into Long’s professional career, St. Anne’s head of school David Lourie flew to St. Louis to talk to him about supporting the school financially.
That conversation led to a scholarship established by Long and his wife, Megan, to fund one student’s education at St. Anne’s. The Longs wanted to remain anonymous donors, and they continued to fund the scholarship for the next seven years.
This past summer, when white supremacists descended on Charlottesville and violent clashes erupted, leading to the tragic death of anti-fascist protester Heather Heyer, the Longs decided they needed to do more. They also felt that they might be able to inspire others to similar action by removing the anonymity of their support. So at the start of the season, Long announced that he’d donate his first six paychecks in support of two fully-funded scholarships to St. Anne’s-Belfield, from sixth grade through high school graduation. (Lourie says that 40 percent of St. Anne’s students receive “some level” of financial assistance.)
Long also stipulated that the recipients would be members of the Boys & Girls Club of Central Virginia, a nonprofit organization that serves 2,500 area youth, and which he’s supported since his days at UVA (Long’s mother, Diane, has been a board member of the Boys & Girls Club since 2004).
When the news broke in 2017 that Long had signed a two-year contract with the Eagles — on his 32nd birthday — Long was at the Southwood Boys & Girls Club, talking with the kids and competing in footraces where he executed, according to the Boys and Girls Club of Central Virginia CEO James Pierce, “the perfect tie at the finish line.” Pierce thought Long would only stay for 10 minutes; he ended up staying for two hours. In a nod to perfect subtlety, he’d worn a non-logoed, forest-green T-shirt. A photo from that day shows a smiling Long crouched down, mobbed by kids hamming it up for the camera, with a handwritten name tag that says, simply, “Chris.”
“I was so pleased, but in no way was I surprised [by the partnership donation],” Pierce says. “The Long family is extremely generous, and if anyone was going to do it, it’s going to be Chris. He’s always been somebody who’s put the community before himself. He knows that he’s been very fortunate in his life, and he feels like it is part of his mission to enhance the world that his young family will grow up in.” (Long and his wife, Megan, had a son, Waylon, in 2016.)
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As the Philadelphia Eagles open their season tonight against the Atlanta Falcons, fans will be watching what happens on the field. But for Long, the focus is on the work that remains in offering educational equity throughout the United States, whether for young children, high schoolers, or college students. Last year’s total salary donation was a start. But it certainly wasn’t the end.
“I’m an athlete. I gave money and I’ve drawn some attention to it, but when we leave or they stop taking pictures, these people go right back to work,” Long says. “The people working for Summer Search, Little Bit, College Bound, the volunteers I’ve met in Charlottesville, and people like James Pierce — they are just amazing people. And we’re really lucky to have them.”