Inspiring children to learn can sometimes be a challenge. But a little creativity can often be the solution. That’s what Michael Robinson has done with his Excel to Excellence foundation.
A native of Richmond, Virginia, Robinson was exposed to the harsher side of life as a child. Although his upbringing was in the lower middle class range, drugs and gangs were everywhere. Three of his best friends growing up are now dead as a result of their drug-dealing activities. Oddly, Robinson was protected by those same friends who were adamant that he not get involved. They told him he was destined for better things.
Robinson also had a mother whom he describes as “overprotective” and who made sure he did things a certain way. A claims manager who spent 30 years working for Blue Cross Blue Shield, she was determined to keep Robinson on the straight and narrow and he couldn’t be more appreciative now.
“When I would bring home a B or C from school, my mom would say ‘Really?’ and I knew I was messing up,” he recalled. “On summer nights, everyone was hanging out until midnight but I had to be in at 10:00 p.m. She had knowledge of the world I didn’t have at the time.”
But, being exposed to that environment left a lasting impact and Robinson knew very early on that he wanted to find a way to show children in his Richmond neighborhood that they have options well beyond what they currently see.
The signature program of Excel to Excellence is Team Excel. Along with his partner, Johnathan Mayo who helps run the foundation via the Avail marketing company in Richmond, Robinson invented Team Excel, which mimics the design of a fantasy football league.
For the pilot program, they went to Robinson’s alma mater, Varina High School, in Richmond. Thirty ninth graders were selected and divided into three teams of ten. The teams competed with each other each week and a combination of points based on team GPA, attendance and community service determined the winner. The winning team members earned various prizes.
Robinson served as the coach for one team and for the other two teams, he brought on board two buddies - Seahawks teammates quarterback Russell Wilson and running back Marshawn Lynch. There were also assistant coaches who were members of the Richmond business community who spoke to all of the participants each week. The group was also taken on field trips so they could gain a new perspective to the world outside the limited one they were ordinarily exposed to.
There were also weekly classes teaching the children real-life tools such as conflict resolution, time management and study skills.
Now the program is expanding, which Mayo explained. “We’re going from 30 students to 90 and expanding to the eight and 10th grades (in addition to ninth). Hopefully they stay and then become mentors.”
All of this grew out of Robinson’s concern for what he has dubbed, “social inertia.” Among other things, he views the perpetuation of single parent households as creating additional challenges for children including a lack of knowledge about financial management and no structured, positive influence in the home. As a result, he has seen many in his neighborhood with limited knowledge of the world outside because they remain in a small geographic area.
“There are a couple of (housing) projects where they have water on one boundary, a highway and another project,” Robinson said. “There are 75-year-old men who have never left their neighborhood. The social inertia concept will continue unless outside forces stop it and if we don’t, we’re guilty of causing social inertia.”
Robinson sees Excel to Excellence as the starting point for him to help stop this social inertia. He described how he has always been a goal-setter and wants to teach that to the children he’s helping as means of creating success for themselves.
When the San Francisco 49ers drafted Robinson out of Penn State in the fourth round of the 2006 NFL Draft, Robinson knew, at that moment, that his life and future were on the clock. He immediately started preparing not just for his football career, but for his post-football career, which now includes, in addition to Excel to Excellence, a job in broadcasting. He also created his own YouTube show seven years ago called The Real Rob Report.
“Success in life to me is way more important than success in football,” he said. “[I based my college choice on], if I get hurt and I can’t play is this school going to get me a good job?”
That forward-thinking, goal-setting philosophy is now what he is trying to impart on these youngsters in his hometown.
For more information on Excel to Excellence, Team Excel and Michael Robinson: www.exceltoexcellence.org and www.youtube.com/user/RealRobReport.