Rachel Robinson speaks during the Jackie Robinson Foundation’s annual birthday celebration on Thursday night. (Eve Roytshteyn/MLB.com)
NEW YORK — Marcus Ellison didn’t have a home, and didn’t have a hope. After a failed foray into the savings and loan business evaporated his father’s wealth, Ellison began living in a car, before upgrading to a shack off the coast of Maine. Stale bread was a staple. Cereal, a luxury.
Ellison had to take a ferry and hitch a ride just to get to school, but still, he went. He wanted to make something of himself — who wouldn’t? — but didn’t quite know how. After scraping for meals became a part of his existence, opportunities such as colleges and job markets just didn’t seem possible.
“I felt like I was grasping for opportunities,” Ellison said. “But there weren’t enough opportunities around.”
Then Ellison found the Jackie Robinson Foundation and everything changed. He enrolled at NYU, created a multimillion dollar real estate development interest, and formed a non-profit organization that provides college preparatory training to inner-city children. In his spare time, he launched a streaming jazz radio station that he hopes can compete with MySpace for listeners. And it all happened a long way from Maine.
“I didn’t have a lot of life experience,” Ellison said. “I didn’t really know where I was going in a firm direction. The Foundation really helped me to see who I could become.”
His story is sensational, but far from unique — Ellison was just one of several successful Jackie Robinson Scholars in attendance at the Foundation’s annual birthday celebration Thursday night. The event not only commemorated the birth of baseball’s greatest social icon, but launched a year’s worth of festivities honoring his namesake organization’s 35th anniversary.
Robinson’s widow, Rachel, launched the Foundation one year after his death in 1972, and it has since grown far beyond her modest dreams. From the beginning, Rachel Robinson wanted her Foundation to involve more than signing checks and sending children on their way. She wanted to establish a program that would mentor children and support them throughout college — both financially and emotionally.
What blossomed was a highly competitive scholarship program that now holds a 97 percent graduation rate for its minority students, more than twice the national average.
“We wanted the program to have a certain quality,” Robinson said. “We know a lot of people give money and wish the students well and that’s the end of it. But we knew we wanted to work on their development — on their character development, on their ideas, on their philosophy of life. And in order to do that, we had to hold onto them and see them more often and do more things with them.”
The growth was slow — still is, in fact, with fewer than a third of Major League teams regularly giving to the charity — but steady. And now, 35 years later, her vision has become clear. The Foundation just moved into a shiny new office in downtown Manhattan, is launching a new program to send students abroad, and since its inception, has provided $16 million of support to nearly 1,200 scholars.
And all of them are treated as if they’re the only one. Just ask Jennifer Kincaid, a former foster child who was able to enroll at Columbia, then head to Ecuador to promote awareness for juvenile diabetes — all with the Foundation’s support. Kincaid had made something out of nothing, and if her childhood didn’t faze her, certainly nothing would.
Except for maybe sophomore year biology.
Overwhelmed by her Ivy League curriculum, Kincaid’s first thought was to see what the Foundation could do. Soon after, she was spilling her woes to a student who had recently passed the class, and, eventually, helped her to do the same.
“I knew that the Foundation made a commitment to us to make sure that we succeeded as students, and in our personal lives, as well,” Kincaid said. “I knew that they would be able to help me somehow.”
Perhaps that’s a novel idea to many, but not to Rachel Robinson and her peers. That’s why the Foundation has lasted for 35 years, despite a fight for funding that never ends. Those fundraising efforts will continue this winter when the organization hosts its annual awards dinner on March 3. Bill Cosby is set to host, and the Foundation will use the event to honor music mogul Clive Davis, film producer George Lucas and academic luminary Johnnetta B. Cole — and perhaps even lure a new sponsor or two.
Still, it’s not as if the Jackie Robinson Foundation is changing the perception of what’s possible — it’s just one more good cause in a world full of them. But the Foundation does manage to stand out, and there’s a clear reason why. Constantly, Foundation president Della Britton Baeza asks herself what Jackie Robinson would have wanted — “What would Jackie do?” — and that’s what guides her every day.
For Baeza, answering that question has become a reward in itself. She remembers one weekend last year when the Foundation held its annual networking conference in New York City, which draws Robinson Scholars together and helps them develop their careers and life skills.
One senior took Baeza aside and handed her a check — his first paycheck. He hadn’t even received the money yet, but that didn’t matter. He wanted more than anything to show his appreciation, and to give back to a Foundation that had already given him so much.
“There are very few times that I tear up, but that was one,” Baeza said. “Those are the kinds of values and those are the kinds of stories that I think hearken back to Jackie Robinson, and what he represented.”