By Marla Ridenour
Beacon Journal sports columnist
As they waited for LeBron James to arrive Saturday at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, young members of his Wheels for Education program practiced their promises.
“I promise to always do my homework,” a girl said.
“I promise to always do my best,” followed another.
“I promise to go to college,” a boy vowed, drawing applause.
“I promise to read,” a girl added.
Hundreds of shiny bikes were parked behind the stage at Cistone Field. New school uniforms sat on a table nearby. Signs promoted the donations of Samsung Mobile tablets and e-books from Sebco Books.
The occasion was the second annual “I Promise Family Reunion,” the kickoff event for the LeBron James Family Foundation’s signature program, which now includes nearly 700 students. The kids and their families enjoyed lunch from Old Carolina Barbecue and a performance by hip-hop group H3. James concluded it all with a pep talk.
Asked what part of the day he enjoyed most, 8-year-old Britten Wilson of Akron said, “the magic act,” referring to part of H3’s show.
For James, it was the opportunity to see the young people he’s trying to help.
“The program we have is going to take care of itself. These kids are going to be in school, they’re going to be watched by high school kids, they’re going to be watched by our foundation, by schools, by colleges,” James said. “Seeing those kids and seeing their smiles, see them stare at me, stare at the bikes, that’s the most gratifying for me.”
Saturday night, James took part in a fashion show at the stadium to unveil the new fall sports team uniforms he donated to his alma mater. Miami Heat star James walked out in a redesigned version of the football uniform he used to wear for the Irish. The $1 million renovation of the gymnasium funded by James is also underway.
James was presented with a plaque that included a piece of the old gym floor.
“Hopefully I’ll get a piece of the new one, too,” he said.
James’ Wheels for Education program has evolved from the bike-a-thon he staged in Akron for five years. In April, 2011 he launched WFE, which at-risk children join when they are third-graders, shown in studies to be a major fork in students’ educational lives. The program now includes children from the classes of 2021, ’22 and ’23.
“Anybody can give away bikes,” said James’ fiancee, Savannah Brinson. “It takes a special person to be able to stick with third-graders throughout the rest of their educational career, help them graduate.”
During the school year, students and parents receive letters, phone calls and video messages from James. Students are awarded “I Promise” bands for their accomplishments.
“To engage them early is huge,” James said. “Also all kids have dreams. Their dreams can be shut down by the environment or someone they’re around. For us as a foundation and me as a role model, I try to let them know that their dreams can become reality. I was a kid who dreamed about many things, but I didn’t let anything stop me. I had role models, coaches and a couple teachers who allowed me to work towards that goal.”
James still donates bikes to promote physical fitness, which he stressed during his talk. The program also includes a two-week camp, with daily lessons in reading, math and learning skills, which must be completed to enroll.
“She’ll be there every day. She likes it,” said Mary Ann Jeffries of Akron of her 8-year-old daughter Jayne. “She loves computers. I’m glad something came up that she was already interested in.”
Wilson’s grandmother, Vera Wilson Linscomb, praised James for the program.
“I think it’s wonderful that he’s giving back to the community; he hasn’t forgot us,” Linscomb said. “He’s a very special young man. I think it’s wonderful what he’s doing for the children. He’s highly respected.”
Linscomb doesn’t understand those who are still bitter over James’ decision to leave the Cavaliers for the Heat three years ago.
“You always want to go forth on your dream,” she said. “I know a lot of people are angry, but I don’t understand it. If that’s his dream, why should we hinder that?”
Maturing as philanthropist
Brinson said charity has always been important to James, but those close to him believe he’s starting to mature as a philanthropist.
“I don’t really put a title on it,” James said. “I do it because I have a passion. I do it because I want to do it. It’s not because someone came to me and said, ‘You should do this because you owe it to them.’ It’s something that was instilled in me to give back. This is my city, there’s 190,000 of us. For me to be one of the few to make it, it wasn’t hard at all.”
James’ bike-a-thon became expensive for the city because of the security required to close down the streets. Now James believes his foundation has found a better way to fulfill the needs of Akron students.
“I think we have something good going,” he said. “Hopefully we can continue to grow here and maybe possibly take it to other places. This is a start. When you talk about education and helping communities, it cannot be done overnight. I don’t think it can be fixed all the way over a lifetime. For me to be in a position to give back, to do what we’re doing as a foundation and as a community, I think the sky’s the limit for us.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.