For Steelers safety Will Allen, his celebrity is the perfect platform to help young people off the field.
His foundation made headlines earlier this month after sponsoring a football banquet for the Wilkinsburg High School football team.
The team struggled with participation this season, averaging about 16 players, and wound up with a 1-8 record this season. Players on the undermanned team often had to play both offense and defense, which meant they were in for entire games with limited breaks.
Mr. Allen invited current and former teammates, including Pittsburgh-based artist and former Steeler Baron Batch, to come and encourage the players.
“I was those kids once, I’ve been in their shoes, so I understand where they’re coming from and what they’re doing,” Mr. Allen said.
Mr. Allen created the Will Allen Foundation in 2008 while playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers through the Champions Fund, a nonprofit based in Oldsmar, Fla. The now-independent foundation moved its headquarters to Pittsburgh when he signed on with the Steelers in 2010.
Ongoing projects include a program that provides custom-made suits to young men in need and an annual holiday giving project. This year, the foundation sponsored Christmas shopping for 15 children from Boys & Girls Club branches in Millvale and McKees Rocks. Each child was given a $150 gift card and taken to Kmart to buy gifts for friends and family members.
“We tried to have employees there identify children with the greatest need so we could do something special for them,” foundation executive director Alexis Maddox said.
Thus far, the foundation’s programs have been funded through private donors. The foundation also held a game night and fundraiser in December to help sponsor programming in the new year.
Its flagship program, “Quest for Real Life Success,” offers weekly lessons to eight students at North Hills High School, Ms. Maddox’s alma mater. The four-year program took in a group of freshmen from various backgrounds in 2011, all hand-picked by school administrators. Once a month, the students also participate in a group community service project.
“These things need to be done, but there’s often not enough time, not enough money, not enough resources to do it,” Mr. Allen said. “That’s why we want to come in and help.”
On Tuesdays, students meet with teachers and guest speakers for lessons ranging from credit management to public speaking to holistic living.
“Now, they talk to me like I’m their big brother,” he said. “When I look at where they were and now they’re about to be graduating seniors … they’re all so different, but have learned and grown together.”
For one lesson, students shadowed and interviewed professionals who worked in careers that interest them. As part of the lesson, students had to create personal business cards. For North Hills senior Sam Greer, the lesson paid off while on a flight to Utah for a 2012 ski trip.
He was seated next to a banking executive and, after a lengthy conversation, the two exchanged business cards and have kept in touch over the years via email. Mr. Greer, who wants to pursue a career in business management, said the connection could prove to be invaluable.
“I think the card really made a difference and distinguished me as a more mature and prepared person,” he said. “[Will] was really proud of me, that the lessons they’re teaching us, we’re turning around and using in everyday life.”
The foundation is looking to expand its programming in the new year, including possibly moving the mentorship program into other school districts, Mr. Allen said.
“I’ve always had someone in my life speak positive things over me, encourage me and empower me with wisdom and knowledge, and they did it for free,” he said. “How can I not reciprocate that?”