Before he ever stepped foot onto an NFL playing field, Steelers' safety Will Allen knew he wanted to make a difference. And not just on the field, not just in the outcome of games, but in the lives of others.
While at Ohio State University Allen's coach, Jim Tressel would take him and his teammates to visit cancer patients, sick children, military members who were wounded or ill. Allen had no idea the impact those acts of kindness could have on others. Once he realized, he knew he wanted to do more.
"It's important because you have the opportunity to help other people, inspire other people and pass down some knowledge and wisdom to your community, to younger people that has been given to you," said Allen. "I never understood the aspect of giving your time to inspire people because of what you do. Once you get to know people and they see you as a normal person, not just a football player, you build a bond with them. It's something that has always been deep in my heart."
After giving of his time to numerous charities his first four years in the NFL, Allen established the Will Allen Foundation in 2008 to 'inspire youth to attain their personal best' and have an influence in the lives of families in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio, his college town of Columbus, Ohio and then Tampa Bay, Florida where he played. Since he signed with the Steelers in 2010 he expanded those efforts to the Pittsburgh community.
"I want to help people, inspire people to see differently about culture, about life, about perspective," said Allen. "I want to empower them to be more than what they see every day. If we can give them resources and tools through my foundation I am thankful. The thing I am most thankful for is to see a smile on someone's face. That is why I do it and that is what motivates me the most."
Allen's foundation has three main programs, Quest for Real Life Success, The Big Play and the REACH, all focused on improving the lives of others.
The Quest for Real Life Success program, which strives to build awareness and help young people in the community, is an after school mentoring program set up to help students prepare for life after high school. The program places emphasis on test taking skills, resume writing, job interview skills and also stresses community service. It allows students to strive for goals outside of the everyday opportunities normally presented to them.
It's that focus on mentoring that got Allen involved with the Mentoring Partnership of Southwestern Pennsylvania (MPSWPA), first sharing with them why his father Keith Allen is his mentor as a part of national mentoring month, and then developing a continuing relationship with the organization. Allen was the keynote speaker for "Future Focus: Take Your Mentee to Career Day," designed to provide an outlet for kids who often are left without anyone to share national 'Take Your Son or Daughter to Work Day.'
"Mentors and mentees participate in workshops to learn about future goals and introduction to options they have for their future goals," said Kristan Allen, director of marketing and communications for MPSWPA. "Mentoring is such a core component in Will's life and value system. We have worked with him and the Steelers the last few years. The Steelers as a whole value mentoring and the impact it has and it's because of guys like Will who have had great mentors in their lives and paid that forward.
"Will Allen is a champion of mentoring who leads by example. He recognizes the positive impact mentors can have in the lives of young people and he doesn't just talk the talk...he walks the walk. He works hard to advance mentoring not only through his own Quest mentoring program, but also through his involvement with community organizations like ours. We're fortunate to have people in our region like Will Allen, who see mentoring as a valuable asset in supporting the success of our community and the future of its children."
Allen was touched that he was chosen to speak at the event, and loves being involved with an organization that has such great focus on today's youth.
"That story alone motivated me and here I am playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Mr. Rooney is helping others, being an honest man and I am sure people look to him as a mentor."
The main reason for the success of Allen's foundation is his hands-on approach to it. He works directly with those he is trying to impact, gives of his time, and when he sees someone that needs help, he quickly reaches out. That was evident earlier this year when he learned of a middle school student in Columbus who didn't have football cleats. Allen made sure that young athlete, who wears a size 14, was taken care of.
He also helped families in the Pittsburgh area, many who will never know he did so, by being a "layaway angel" and paying off their layaway at K-Mart for back-to-school needs for their kids.
"We just want to do random acts of kindness," said Allen. "It helps people you might never see or know, but that's how we operate as a foundation. A lot of families struggle. It's hard. To help them and let them know someone has their back, we are here to help. It's what we want to do."
Allen plans on doing the same type of thing around the holidays, helping to make a magical time of year even more so for families.
"It's humbling to be able to do it," said Allen. "It helps you appreciate what you have and where you are. I have been blessed to play football for so long. I have had a lot of people help me along the way. I feel like it's my responsibility to keep doing that.
"There are so many things people can do to help others out. Helping our community, building it the right way, is important. You hope that those you impact will try and impact others."
Allen will host a Monday Night Football Watch Party on December 8 at Rum Runners in Pittsburgh's North Hills area. The event, which will include raffle items, will benefit his foundation. For more information visti www.willallenfoundation.com.
"To come in and speak and be a role model for them in that capacity is rewarding and humbling," said Allen. "I never thought I would be part of such a great group. To share my perspective on mentors, to see mentors help the kids, I am willing to do whatever to help that group because the platform is great and they help so many kids in Pittsburgh and the surrounding areas."
Allen stresses that your mentor can be anyone who makes a positive impact on your life, and you never know when you might come across that person. A case in point he used was Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney Sr. He inquired who Mr. Rooney's mentor was and learned that it was a person who touched Rooney early in life, his high school football coach.
"Here is a man who is an Ambassador, who has met millions of people in his life of great influence, and he talked about his high school football coach," said Allen. "You never know the legacy and impact somebody might leave on your life, and you never know the legacy and impact you might leave on somebody else's life. That is the whole thing about having a foundation, being philanthropic, being a mentor, is the exchange you have from each experience, what you gain from it, what you get from it, what you learn from it and what you can pass on to the next generation.