Let’s Soar

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Let me bring you back to my family’s breakfast table when I was growing up.

It’s the mid-1980s. My mother is raising her children virtually alone and working two jobs. Nothing in this life comes easy.

In between scoops of cereal, she plops a newspaper in front of me. She points to an article. It’s about someone who was arrested. I shake my head.

“Mom, it’s too early to read. I have to read in school all day already.”

She doesn’t care. She waits for me to read the article, and then hits me with a question I’ll never forget.

“What type of person do you want to be? The guy who committed this crime or the guy who resists temptation?”

It was moments like that that helped guide my moral compass growing up. That, of course, isn’t to say I was a perfect kid. There were times when I would disobey her because I thought I could get away with it. For example, one time I went down to this creek behind the house. That creek was always off limits. My mom was very clear about that. But I wanted to go down there and mess around with my friends. And of course I got caught. Oh boy, did I feel wrath that day. I knew that what I had done was wrong, but I had done it anyway and had to pay the consequences. That was a powerful lesson in a very important discipline: Accountability 101.

As I continued to mature as a person and as a football player, the notion of accountability kept nagging at me. I used to get ridiculed in front of my teammates for missed reads or bad plays. It happened a lot, even when I was making Pro Bowls and leading the league in several stats. But I never shied away from being held accountable for my mistakes, because I knew the teachable moment was bigger than me. Sometimes a rookie needs to see the “untouchable” star be held accountable. If a young kid sees a veteran held to a certain standard, they get a better idea of what’s expected of them.

Whether it’s football or life, someone who is accountable recognizes when they’ve failed and makes the necessary adjustments in order to find success. The younger you do so, the better off you’ll be.

So during my retirement, one of my main goals has been to impart this way of life to today’s younger generation. Not because I think today’s kids are in any way worse than kids from my generation. Not at all. In fact, I want to do this because I identify with their struggles. All kids must learn how to think, which in turn will help them hold themselves accountable for their actions.

I never shied away from being held accountable for my mistakes, because I knew the teachable moment was bigger than me.

This idea was my biggest motivation in starting SOAR to Success and the LT Preparatory Academy.

With SOAR, which stands for Students’ Outstanding Academic Rise, the focus is on process — even more so than on results. Whether you’re a young student just entering high school or an eager graduate heading to college, you will find yourself on your own at some point. And it’s that moment that I want to prepare kids for. You could have had straight A’s or have been a star athlete, but the biggest leap in college often isn’t the curriculum or the practice schedule. It’s the lifestyle. You have to be a self-starter in order to really thrive. You need to understand accountability.

With that in mind, we wanted to create an incentivized program for today’s young students to succeed. SOAR offers students in ninth grade a road map to follow throughout their high school careers in order to earn a college scholarship. With the help of Dr. Jacque Gamino at the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas, our instructors are heavily trained in the SMART (Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training) teaching program.

And man, our teachers are awesome. They’re on another level. They use our custom software on iPads to track tardiness, grade performance, record how many books a child is reading, chart behavior and attitude, and generally log how students are doing as members of their communities. It’s incredible to see how dedicated they are to getting students to excel in the program. Man, I look back at some of the kids in my neighborhood growing up, and I think this type of program could have possibly changed their lives.

Tracking all of these metrics is one part of the equation for SOAR, but we also make a point of rewarding the kids who are doing things the right way. A college scholarship definitely means something to a ninth grader, but it’s not as tangible as something like a gift card or school supplies. We give out little items like that along the way to kids who are on the right path to show them that responsible living does indeed pay off.  I may even buy a student some Air Jordans if they’re really performing well. I mean, I know that would have motivated me at that age.

The goal is not to just send a kid off to college and then pat ourselves on the back. I want these kids to go to college with a confident mindset so they can excel. We’re not teaching to the test. We’re teaching to the child.

Let me tell you a little bit about how we got to where we are today.

After a successful pilot program at Edison middle school in West Dallas — a school located in a troubled neighborhood — we determined that it made the most sense to target the freshman year of high school as the starting point for the program. These kids are just 14 or 15 years old. They don’t know what to think or how to think. We’ve found that we can get students to buy into the program if they begin it at an age when they’re already experiencing a lot of changes.

Right now we’re in two high schools: University High and Waco High. University and Waco have over 1,500 students each, most of whom (over 75 percent) come from economically disadvantaged homes. Both schools have low proficiency scores in math and reading, and their kids come from a place very dear to me. I attended University High and most of my friends were at Waco High. I know what these kids in the community are going through and I know what they are lacking. I know what they need.

That’s why this is more than just a charitable cause to me. I want as many kids as possible where I came from to have an opportunity at the kind of life I’ve had. And it starts with them leading a responsible lifestyle. I know these kids have it in them, because I was once one of them. I believe in them, but they need to believe in me.

That’s accountability. And I can’t wait to spread the message.

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For more information on how to support LaDainian’s SOAR to Success program, click here.

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