Marcus Allen is looking for a few good men. To be honest, he is looking for a lot of good men, black men like himself, to be mentors and role models, to make a difference in the lives of boys without them.
"We need more men of color. Our community needs to see us get involved," said Allen, the first black man to lead Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southeastern Pennsylvania in its century of service. The organization, which mentors almost 3,000 children in Philadelphia, Montgomery, Delaware, and Chester Counties, has a waiting list of more than 1,100 hopeful "Littles," the overwhelming majority black and biracial boys, yet black men represent only 15 percent of volunteers.
The group's mentor pool mirrors a national pattern, according to an Urban Leadership Institute survey. Black men volunteer far less than white counterparts - and at half the rate of white women - though more frequently than Hispanic men. Big Brothers will initially partner younger black boys with white men or couples, but these children ultimately benefit from partnerships with black men who understand, as Allen said, "I came from where you came from. I understand what you're going through."
Mentors make a difference. Certainly they did for Allen growing up in Thompson, Ga., without a father. "You think urban poverty is tough, you try rural poverty," said Allen, 41, who was raised in a home lacking indoor plumbing.
His first coach - a cop - and his college basketball coach made all the difference. His friends wanted to be millionaires, drive Corvettes. Allen wanted college. He learned early that education was the key to getting out of poverty, out of Thompson.
"My college coach didn't just invest in me as a player," said Allen, 6-foot-7 and talented enough to play pro ball overseas, "he invested in me as a man. He invested in me as a leader."
Now he's returning the favor. Allen abhors the phrase "pull yourself up by your bootstraps." Impossible, he said: "I didn't get here by myself." Male mentors make all the difference.
On the eve of the Martin Luther King Day of Service - Philadelphia promotes its as the nation's largest - it's good to volunteer for the day. But it's not enough in a city where almost 40 percent of children live in poverty, and two out of three are born into households without fathers.
"A day off to do something that makes me feel good is not enough about Martin Luther King's complete legacy for racial equality, and social and economic equality," Allen said. "It's a start. But we've just scratched the surface."
Big Brothers usually mentor for three years, meeting with children two to four times a month at schools, work, or doing activities in the community. "We know that, after you've been matched for a year, that's when you add real value," Allen said. Adults, though, are often immediately transformed by the child's experience and gratitude.
The children, ages 7 to 15, are ultimately transformed. They are far more likely to behave in school, and avoid truancy, arrests, and convictions. They are less likely to use drugs and lie to parents. Nearly 100 percent of Little Sisters avoid becoming teen mothers, and begin to end the cycle of poverty.
Allen knows how hard it is to find black men to volunteer. "Many have been marginalized," he said. "There's a stigma if they're not making enough money, unemployed, or have been arrested. Many have their own children they need to take care of. They may be helping informally in other ways." Big Brothers does rigorous background checks of mentor candidates. Ex-offenders, with nonviolent records, are welcome to apply.
So Allen is out there recruiting black men. He goes to churches twice a month, and plans to visit barbershops. Last fall, he hosted an event for 35 black leaders. Next month, he has asked them to return, along with five friends. "Imagine how many future Bigs we can get," he said.
"You have to have a big heart to show up," Allen told me. "But we have to show up. We need to be male role models. It's on us."
And not only for one day.
King Day Events
Activities are scheduled throughout Philadelphia and the surrounding counties in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware.
For information on Day of Service activities in the area or to volunteer for a project, go to www.allforgood.org.
More on Big Brothers Big Sisters
at bbbssepa.org or 215-790-9200.