Jackson Duncan, (top center), with Focused Athletics alumni- (clockwise from L) AJ Issacs, Ray Thomas, Eric Taylor, Cheick Diawara, Casey Williams, and Charly Timite.
Jackson Duncan will never forget the day he was invited to work out with a group of student athletes in South Philly a few years ago. He was blown away by all the talent he saw in those kids. Unfortunately, he also noticed something else — the kids were dealing with a lot of issues including hunger, poverty, and unstable home environments.
In the city of Philadelphia, youth are surrounded by some of the highest poverty and violent crime rates in the nation, severe unemployment, and under-funded schools. These challenges place the kids growing up here at a serious disadvantage for future success.
As a former student athlete himself, Jackson wanted to do something to help these students reach their full potential. In 2015, he formed Focused Athletics, a local non-profit organization that provides at-risk high school athletes in the greater Philadelphia area with athletic, academic, and professional development opportunities.
Helping Youth Reach Their Potential
“We started Focused Athletics with donated space in University City for weekly workouts, and Farmer’s Keep, our first food partner, donated food for the kids every week,” Duncan said. “Eventually, two kids asked me for help with their SATs because they said they weren’t getting any prep at their public school, so we added that to our program. Then another kid asked for help with writing a resume, so we added the professional development aspect.”
The program also teaches the kids the importance of civic engagement, financial literacy, and health education.
“These are some really talented kids (most of them are two or three sport athletes), but the statistics say that they are going to jail or worse,” Jackson said. “Our program provides a safe place for them to learn, grow, and network.”
How the Program Works
This year, Focused Athletics has about 55 high school athletes from underserved communities enrolled in the program. The kids represent a variety of local high schools, including Bartram, Simon Gratz, Imhotep, Martin Luther King Jr., Northeast, and Overbrook.
The kids meet every Wednesday and Saturday for the entire year, including the summer. Wednesday night sessions are dedicated to academic training, mentoring, and professional development, while Saturday morning sessions are reserved solely for workouts. Various food partners provide meals for the kids at each session.
The Power of Partnerships
Jackson relies on the generosity of corporate partners to provide space to host weekly sessions and workouts, cover transportation costs to and from each session, and supply food for the kids.
One of Focused Athletic’s newest corporate partners is Independence Blue Cross (Independence). Since October 2019, the company has provided Focused Athletics with space each Wednesday at their headquarters in Center City for SAT prep and mentoring.
“When the kids walk into the building, they are bright-eyed. The idea of having a space at Independence feels exclusive to them.” Jackson said. “It makes them feel good that someone is investing in them and their future and is giving them an opportunity to better themselves.”
In addition to providing space, Independence associates also serve as tutors and mentors to the kids.
Men in Mentorship
“Mentoring is extremely important for these kids. A majority of the kids in the program lack strong male role models,” Duncan said. “Our program offers them that. If we aren’t there, the kids may look in the wrong direction.”
With 100 percent of the kids in the program being African-American, Duncan strives to provide diverse mentors for the kids in the program to better understand and serve their needs.
“We have two outstanding directors on our team — both successful African-American men from Philadelphia — and we have diverse volunteer mentors from several corporate partners,” he said. “It’s important for the kids to have male mentors they can look up to who look like them and have gone through similar situations in life. It lets them know that they can be successful, too.”
Looking Forward to the Future
Looking back, Duncan and his staff are very proud of what they’ve accomplished thus far.
“We’ve had about 88 students go through the program, and about 84 are still in college,” he said. “Most importantly, you can see a shift in the kids. Once they are in the program, they care more about their academics and their future. They actually get very competitive about SAT scores. Those scores have skyrocketed. It’s a great thing to see.”
Another source of pride for Duncan? Signing day.
On signing day (February 5), the students in his program will announce where they’re going to college. In addition, Focused Athletics will be handing out scholarships.
To learn more about signing day or to get involved with the program, be sure to check out the Focused Athletics website.