As I embark on my first few weeks of the 2019 semester of Generation Great, my free tutoring and mentoring program that provides one-on-one guidance to underserved youth in Oak Park, I reflect on where I was just a year ago — no volunteers, no kids and the tragic loss of the man who inspired my nonprofit organization.
Dr. Cooks was a man like no other. After decades behind bars, Dr. Cooks returned to his hometown, Oak Park, dedicating his life to improving children’s lives, ensuring they didn’t fall down the same path as he.
I remember the first day I met him, walking into his Martin Luther King education center in the heart of Oak Park, turning the corner and seeing this vibrant, 65-year-old man dressed in a red suit, rhinestone-studded dress shoes, a fedora and gold chains. Quite honestly, I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into, but then three cute little kids ran around the corner, Dr. Cooks greeted me with a big, welcoming smile, and I knew I had found something special.
The first child I met was in a very difficult situation. She had a complicated home situation and often missed school due to her mother’s reluctance to drive her. As I spent time with her on the first day, I asked the reticent 9-year-old to tell me something about herself that she wanted me to know. I was anticipating a response along the lines of “I really like drawing” or “My favorite color is pink.” But no; she smiled, looked down at her feet and shyly responded, “I’m kind.” If that doesn’t melt your heart, I don’t know what will.
Dr. Cooks and I sat down to talk, and we agreed that I would build his program. He was a visionary, overflowing with wonderful ideas, yet he struggled with execution. His heart was in it, but he had no idea how to successfully maintain a company and run a tutoring and mentoring nonprofit. He had zero volunteers but a beautiful center, an amazing vision and so many adorable kids looking for someone to spend time with them and take an interest in their future.
Dr. Cooks was different. As he walked down the street, he was like the Pied Piper as children ran out of their house doors to follow him toward his center. People were always clamoring for his attention, and he joked with me, “My cousin always tells me, ‘It must be difficult to be a ghetto celebrity.’”
For some of the children, he assumed the role of the father figure in their lives. He was providing them with something that they weren’t getting at home or at school — attention coupled with a strong dose of guidance and high expectations. He knew what they were capable of and wanted to make sure they knew it, too. No matter who the boy was, if he walked in with his pants sagging or a hood on with an I-couldn’t-care-less attitude, Dr. Cooks would immediately bellow, “Pull up your pants! Look me in the eyes! That is no way to greet an adult!” But he was always quick to shove his hand deep into his pocket and pull out a $10 bill for one of the neighborhood boys eager to hand out flyers or distribute information for his center.
I was creating a comprehensive youth program at Dr. Cooks’ center in which area high school students tutored and mentored children three days a week. After the first day of the pilot summer program, Dr. Cooks pulled me aside and told me he was ill. He died six weeks later.
Even though he was gone, his dedication and encouragement didn’t have to be. I decided to start my own nonprofit organization in honor of Dr. Carroll Cooks to continue his legacy and maintain the special bonds I had made with so many children in such a short amount of time.
Dr. Cooks left me with four guiding principles that have become pillars of Generation Great’s No Youth Left Behind Legacy Program:
—Nothing will change in the inner city unless help comes from the outside.
—You come to the inner city primarily to show youth that other possibilities exist.
—Real change happens only when a transformation happens in a youth’s own heart.
—You can’t reach everyone, so don’t get discouraged.