By: Geoff Bergman Issue: Sports Section: Collaborator Profile
Helping Kids Help Themselves
Coach Lonnie Porter sits in his home watching the evening news; it is an average summer evening in Denver, Colorado in the early 1990’s. Coach Porter is disturbed by the images that he is seeing on the news. Denver is in the midst of one of its most restless summers in years; a summer that has been marred by gang violence. Coach Porter notices a disturbing trend in the news stories; young men caught up in street life, all of whom seem to be missing a positive male influence in their lives. Coach Porter recalled seeing story after story on these kids and there was not a father in sight. That was a defining moment in his life. Lonnie Porter knew that he could do more to help out his community, especially the youth.
Shortly thereafter, Coach Porter came up with the idea of the Academy. He now knew exactly how he wanted to reach out to his community. He just needed the means to see his vision become a reality. Lonnie shared his vision with Bob Willis, a close friend of his. Willis was inspired by Lonnie’s dream and decided to give the initial donation that got the ball rolling. So with $7,500 and an ambitious goal, Lonnie officially started what is now known as The Porter-Billups Leadership Academy.
Porter, a college basketball coach with over 500 wins at Regis University in Denver, is Colorado’s all-time winningest coach and a man that not only commands but demands respect. And although he has many basketball accolades, he is quick to say that the statistics that he is most proud of is that 95% of his players have graduated. Conversely, this basketball and community leader came from very humble beginnings in the Midwest which molded him into the man that he is today. Porter was born in Indiana and grew up in a poverty-stricken neighborhood. Coach Porter is known for being a straight forward, no nonsense guy. These qualities were instilled in him by some of his first coaches. They taught him as much about life as they did about basketball. He learned that you must have self-discipline, you must be accountable for yourself, you must be true to yourself and, as Chauncey Billups, Denver Nuggets point guard and the Academy's co-namesake shares, “He is honest at all times, at all costs.”
Regis University – Home of the Academy
“You know that when he is telling you something, it is something that you need to know; maybe just not what you want to know,” says Billups.
you must have self-discipline, you must be accountable for yourself, you must be true to yourself Coach Porter is as tough as a grizzly bear in the gym, but when he is around children his whole demeanor changes. He gets a huge smile on his face when he remembers the very first day of the Academy in 1996, and is overcome with the joy of a proud parent.
“I remember picking up those young kids that first day. I was driving down the highway and I literally got chills. I thought to myself there could be a future world leader on this bus,” recalls Coach Porter.
The Academy started that day with 22 young minds, three faculty members, with the blessing of the Jesuits at Regis University and an ambitious goal to help our future leaders learn, grow and go above and beyond their potential. Coach Porter and his daughter, Staci, whom he had selected to help run the program, knew that they had a long way to go but were anxious about the voyage ahead.
The Porter-Billups Leadership Academy, which is located on the Regis University campus, is intended to help kids in Denver’s inner city that have the potential to do great things, but are in danger of falling through the cracks if someone does not lend them a helping hand. Porter says, “Ninety-percent of these students will be the first in their family to attend college.” Lonnie believes that everyone who has ever achieved anything was helped out by someone along the way and that we should help out those around us whenever possible.
When creating the idea of the Academy, Coach Porter noticed that in most schools there were special programs for those with very poor grades, as well as programs for those who excelled in the classroom. It was his belief that most leaders come from the B+ to C+ grade range, and that these bright young students were the ones that were most often neglected. The Academy focused on these children and gave them the opportunity to further their education, while becoming leaders in their schools and communities.
The students at the Academy are nominated by their principals and teachers; with criteria that they must have a good attendance record, a clean disciplinary record, and must demonstrate motivation and leadership characteristics. Once students are accepted, they attend an annual three week long summer session where they are taught life lessons that would not be taught in a traditional classroom – lessons like teamwork, conflict resolution, critical thinking and proper etiquette. They learn about non-violent leaders such as Ghandi, Nelson Mandela and the Dali Lama. Students are taught how to evaluate themselves and set goals based on their strengths and weaknesses. The students range from fourth to twelfth grade. Furthermore, the Academy offers year-round mentoring and guidance counseling where high school students are able to get help on their college applications and can participate in study programs for the SATs and ACTs.
During the three week program on the Regis campus, the students take days full of classes taught by 23 Denver area teachers, many of whom have been at the Academy for years. In fact, one teacher who had been at the Academy for many years moved to Chicago, but he believed in the importance and impact of the program so much that he committed to fly back to Denver every summer and stay for three weeks to be a part of these young lives.
While at the Academy, the students mature and turn into strong, independent young adults. The faculty has worked hard to make the Academy an extremely positive atmosphere for these kids. They learn life skills that will get them through everyday life. Students are taught to be leaders, not followers. “Don’t do what others think you should do, do what is best for you and what you think is right,” Coach Porter reminds them. The students learn that they must take accountability for their actions and must learn to conduct themselves in a moral manner.
Coach Porter believes that one huge problem plaguing today’s youth and society in general is a false sense of entitlement. He thinks that there is too much emphasis on “I” and “Me.” Coach Porter wants his kids to know that nothing is owed to you, you must work for everything. He is quick to add that if you work hard, you can achieve great things.
Students who have been attending the Academy for at least seven years and graduate high school are given the chance to attend Regis University, paid for by the Academy. Here they are able to continue their higher education on the same campus where years ago they told themselves that they would make it to college and beyond.
Chauncey Billups, a Denver native and home town hero had long admired Lonnie Porter and what he was doing. Billups had known Lonnie since his high school days and in 2006, while in Detroit playing for the Pistons, he decided that he would reach out to Lonnie to see if he could help. Through a mutual friend, the two were connected and Billups quickly came on board. Billups had long been involved in the community but always wanted to do more. Once he saw Coach Porter’s impact and how unique the program was, he knew he’d found his niche. The program was officially renamed the Porter-Billups Leadership Academy. The students and future students of the academy were the real winners of the alliance between these two Colorado legends. Lonnie saw that Billups exemplified many of the characteristics and qualities that the Academy was trying to teach. Porter said, “Chauncey was a real gentleman and a good citizen. He demonstrated respect for himself and for others. He is not defined by his riches or accolades but by his moral character.”
Like Coach Porter, Billups too came from modest beginnings and was also lucky to have strong positive role models in his childhood. Billups says that he was very fortunate to have a loving and caring family. His parents would do anything they could to better the lives of their three children. Even his extended family would do what they could to help. From an early age Billups learned that a strong support system was essential for youth to grow up and become strong and independent adults. When asked, Billups said one of the biggest reasons that he finds so much reward in helping out these children is because he “sees himself in them.” He is able to understand where they are coming from and can help them through some of their everyday struggles.
Billups differs from many big name athletes who have foundations in their names; due in part that he is actually actively involved. Unlike some of his superstar counterparts, he is not just there for the photo opportunity or to stop by for ten minutes at the end of a program. He is a busy man who strives to be available for active interaction with these kids. He is there for a majority of the program during the three week summer sessions. The kids love him, not because of who he is on the basketball court, but because he is one of them. As Coach Porter pointed out, “Chauncey has an uncanny way of relating with anyone and everyone. Chauncey likes to sit down with the children and have lunch with them as do most of the teachers. He is able to interact with them on their level and get the chance to become acquainted with them. From the look on his face, one can see that he is getting just as much out of this as the students are.”
Both Billups and Coach Porter are always roaming the halls while the classes are in session, and often pop in the classrooms to see how things are going. Both men, almost instinctively, begin to interact with the children and give them positive support. In one instance, Billups took the time to sit down with a group of young girls playing a game. He treated them as peers and with respect. They let him play and within minutes they were all laughing and having a great time. Moments like these can be what changes lives. Oftentimes these kids do not get to experience enough of these instances outside of the Academy.
Billups says of moments like these, “The one thing that you will get here is that you will feel, and know what it feels like, to be loved.”
they wholeheartedly want to help those kids who want to be helped, in the hopes that one day they will be leaders, who will reach out to others in their own communities.
Fourteen years after its inception, the Porter- Billups Leadership Academy has really come into its own. Coach Porter, Billups, and Staci Porter (the Academy's Director), have taken this program to heights that Lonnie dreamed of while watching the news on the TV that summer day over 15 years ago. With the addition of Billups, the Academy has been able to spread its wings and soar to new heights. Last summer the Academy had 133 children attend the program, 70 of which were high school students. Last Fall, they had four of their alumni return to the Regis University campus again to start their college careers.
When asked about what the future holds, Porter says, “The Porter-Billups Leadership Academy has definitely come a long way; however there is an even longer journey.” Recently, several of the Academy’s first students graduated from Regis University. It was just the beginning of Porter’s goal: to have all of his students one day graduate and go out into the community and become positive beacons of light. Coach Porter, Billups and Staci realize that they cannot help every child and that the children must be willing to make sacrifices and help themselves. However, they wholeheartedly want to help those kids who want to be helped, in the hopes that one day they will be leaders, who will reach out to others in their own communities.
Both Porter and Billups agree that one day they will retire from basketball, but they will never retire from the Academy. Coach Porter had a poignant way of summing it all up; “There is no better investment for the future than investing in the education of a child.”
For more information or to contact the Porter-Billups Leadership Academy please visit:
Geoff Bergman has a B.A in History and International Business and Economics from the Benedictine University in Lisle, IL. Bergman is an independent writer for ICOSA. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.