Surprise grant rescues youth program

A successful Urban League youth program that was in danger of shutting down due to lack of funding has won a second chance, thanks to a surprise $100,000 matching grant from Family Dollar Stores founder Leon Levine and his Levine Foundation.

Leon Levine contacted the league and offered to help save the Urban Youth Empowerment Program, which was losing federal Department of Labor funding after three years.

The program has had an 80 percent success rate in Charlotte, helping dropouts and youthful offenders earn GEDs and move on to college, vocational school or the military. Funding was scheduled to run out last Friday, even with a waiting list of nearly 100.

“I've had a lot of close experiences with programs like this one, and we just couldn't let this go away,” said Levine, who learned of the money shortage from an Observer story. “It's just too important to our community and to our young people who are trying hard to better their lives. … These kids need our help. That's what touched us.”

The Leon Levine Foundation, headed by Leon and his wife, Sandra, has more than $150 million in assets and supports dozens of charitable organizations each year with donations. This marks the Levines' first teaming with the Urban League, but the program's goal to help young people is squarely in line with the foundation's mission, says Levine Foundation Vice President Tom Lawrence. The $100,000 donation is the largest private grant in memory for Urban League officials, who have been overwhelmed enough by the gift to consider renaming the program in the Levines' honor. Another $300,000 is still needed to keep the program going an entire fiscal year, but Urban League President Patrick Graham is confident the money will be raised through other grants and an aggressive fund drive set to begin Nov. 1.

“After I got off the phone with Mr. Levine, I was overcome with emotion,” said Graham. “As president of the Urban League, I feel personally responsible for these young people, and you can't help but feel responsible for the loss of funding. … We did everything we were supposed to do to keep that money, and the young people did everything they were supposed to, but we still ended up losing it. Mr. Levine has restored faith in the idea that, if you work hard enough, it makes a difference.”

The Department of Labor pledged $420,000 annually to the three-year pilot program in 2005. Its key to success in Charlotte was a combination of community service, job training and specialized classes that fit each student's need, including lessons on how to resolve conflicts without violence.

Urban League officials have already begun contacting students on the waiting list to tell them the program will continue. However, a cost-cutting change being considered is the loss of a small stipend paid to students for community service, Graham said. “We're competing with the streets, and that stipend sometimes kept them in the program until they realized all the other benefits,” he said.

To date, 169 young people, ages 18 to 21, have participated, all of them dropouts or young offenders who spent time in prison. Most have had success in earning their GEDs and finding steady work, while others have enrolled in colleges, vocational schools or joined the military. Graham credits their success to a unique approach, which creates a “life plan” for students with the help of teachers, counselors and volunteer mentors.

“We're talking about a rebirth of these people,” says Graham. “These young people are trying to change in this program and come out as something new.”