Joan Mazzotti always has a story about a student who has faced tough circumstances but has persevered to get to and through college - with her organization's help.
In Mazzotti's more than 16 years at the helm of Philadelphia Futures, the nonprofit organization has shepherded more than 500 students through cash-strapped public high schools in the city and on to college.
Among them were two Haitian-born orphans whom she and her husband mentored.
Now, Mazzotti herself is preparing to take a culminating step.
Through tears, Mazzotti, 66, told staff Tuesday that she intends to step down by Jan. 8 or after a successor is found.
"One good thing a good leader can do is know when it's time to step aside and pass the mantle," she said. "It's time for me and for Philadelphia Futures. We need to be starting a new strategic plan in the next year, and the person who will have the honor to implement the plan should be the one designing it."
Mazzotti is only the third leader in the history of the organization, started in 1989 by Marcine Mattleman, then head of the city's literacy program.
Mazzotti, a Long Island native with a bachelor's degree in political science from Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J., and a law degree from Villanova University, was a corporate lawyer for Aramark for more than 20 years. But she had always hoped to find a way to work on the problem of educational inequity. Mazzotti quickly fell in love with the job and became a passionate advocate for students.
She didn't hesitate to point out problems.
"Students in the comprehensive high schools must badger their overworked counselors for everything they need in the college admission process," she told the Inquirer in 2008. "They do not have the luxury of being badgered by their counselors."
Mazzotti said last week that students still don't get the college guidance they deserve, even though the district has restored some counseling positions cut over the last few years. More resources are needed, she said.
"The passion that Joan brings to her work comes through in every element of its operation," said Laura Williamson, chair of the Futures board and chief operating officer of Glenmede, a Philadelphia investment and wealth-management firm. "She has absolutely boundless energy for creating an environment that engages high school students and that encourages college."
The Futures program provides high school students with weekly sessions on study skills, SAT preparation, essay writing, and other topics. Each student is paired with an adult mentor, and colleges host the students for summer programs.
In college, the students receive a $6,000 stipend for books and expenses and continued support from the organization.
Colleges that work with Futures, Mazzotti said, have become better at helping students from Philadelphia schools, she said. Among them are Haverford, Lehigh, Lafayette, Arcadia, Penn State, Dickinson, Franklin & Marshall, Drexel, and Gettysburg.
She remains concerned about rising costs of public universities. Even with financial aid and loans, Futures students can't afford them and sometimes pay less at higher-priced private schools because they offer more aid, she said.
During her tenure, the organization's budget has more than doubled to $3.3 million. Since the organiation's inception, its six-year college graduation rate has risen from 50 to 59 percent. In the last decade alone, graduation rates have been even better, Mazzotti said.
In 2011, she presided over the merger of Futures with another nonprofit, White-Williams Scholars. And in 2013, Futures received an unprecedented $1 million gift from John Langan and Judith Nadell, South Jersey residents who founded Townsend Press. The couple gave another $1 million 18 months later.
Sometimes the work got personal.
Mazzotti and her husband, Michael Kelly, a retired lawyer, mentored and became stand-in parents to Ruben and Ralph Alexis, two Philadelphia Futures students who went on to graduate from Haverford. The young men, who are from Haiti, had lost both their parents years earlier.
Ralph Alexis is completing a master's degree in hospitality in Paris, Mazzotti said. Reuben Alexis, who got his degree in religion, is working in Philadelphia, though not in his field, she said.
Mazzotti and her husband, who live in Haverford, have one child, Andrew, who is a design engineer for Honda in Columbus, Ohio.
Though her work life may be ending, Mazzotti said she and her husband intend to continue contributing to and volunteering for nonprofit organizations that champion access to quality health care, education, and the arts.
"We want to continue our philanthropic efforts to help populations living in poverty," she said.