Though he’s been a star linebacker for the Carolina Panthers, Thomas Davis knows firsthand what it’s like to be poor and have to do without. He grew up as one of three siblings in a single-parent household in a small town in rural southwestern Georgia. While some of his friends got caught up in drugs and crime, Davis kept himself busy with sports, including playing football and baseball in high school, he said.He went on to play football at the University of Georgia, and in 2005 was drafted by the Panthers. Davis has come a long way from his hardscrabble childhood, and now he’s giving back to the community, both in Charlotte and back in Georgia. “I didn’t really have anybody to help me out when I was growing up,” says Davis, 28. “And I want to make a difference in the lives of kids who might be a disadvantage.”Davis founded the Thomas Davis Defending Dreams Foundation in 2008. The Charlotte-based nonprofit, through various charitable outreach efforts, helps instill in young people leadership skills, confidence and a sense of purpose, said Coushatta Fuller, a foundation board member. One of the foundation’s main programs is the Thomas Davis Leadership Academy, designed specifically for middle-school kids. “We target middle-school children because that’s a sensitive age,” says Fuller. “They’re coming into their own as people, and we want them to understand that the decisions they make even at that age can impact their futures.” The leadership academy consists of two sessions of six weeks each, during which board members and other partners teach kids about the fundamentals of leadership and how to be a responsible members of the community. Kids are also taught communication skills, and how to speak in front of a crowd. There are role-playing exercises as well, where participants tackle sensitive issues like bullying.“It teaches them the skills they’ll need to become a responsible adult and really go after their dreams,” says Davis.Often during the leadership academies, special guests will visit, such as members of the Charlotte Fire Department. They teach kids about safety, and how to be prepared in case of an emergency. The kids also help prepare meals at area soup kitchens in order to learn about personal responsibility and cooperating with others. Sessions aren’t just “talking at” the kids. They’re designed to have open dialogue, so the kids can ask questions and voice their thoughts, Fuller says. Another of the foundation’s programs is the summer football camp, during which Davis, along with dozens of other NFL players, teaches up to 300 kids the fundamentals of football, teamwork and good sportsmanship. “Kids can learn a lot about life through athletics,” Davis says. “It’s one of the things I had growing up that really helped me make it through.” When Davis first started the football camps, board members suggested it might be a good way to raise money for the foundation, even if it was just $5 per kid. But Davis was adamant about keeping the event free. “He said there were many times when his mom didn’t have $5 to spend, and he didn’t want any kid to miss out on the opportunity,” says Fuller. The foundation’s six board members, including Davis’ wife, Kelly, are all active in the community, and through their connections finds the kids and families most in need. “Kelly and I are both very hands-on,” says Davis. “We’re involved in all aspects of the foundation.” As part of its community outreach, the foundation holds a toy drive at Christmas both in Charlotte and back in Davis’ hometown in Georgia. As part of the foundation’s mission to promote active and healthy lifestyles, it gives away toys like bicycles as opposed to computer games, Fuller says.Of all the families the foundation has helped, one touched Davis above others. He met five siblings whose mother was murdered last year, and were all living in substandard conditions with their grandmother. The foundation put the family up at Great Wolf Lodge in Concord, and did a quick makeover of the grandmother’s house, including new carpeting, paint, beds and minor repairs, and bought educational games and toys for the kids. “It meant so much to all of us at the foundation that we could help that family,” says Davis.Also on Thanksgiving, Davis and several other Panthers players help serve meals to clients of the Shelter for Battered Women, during which they all take time to sit and talk with the women. Moving forward, Davis says he wants his foundation to reach more kids, and he plans to expand his leadership academy to include additional sessions. A lot of people look at NFL charities as just something to make the player look good,” says Fuller. “One thing I struggle with is Thomas doesn’t want publicity. The only reason he’s doing this is he knows there are people out there who need help.”
More information: To make a donation or learn more: www.defendingdreams.org.