Rob Dixon’s Cause on the RISE After All-Star Tribute

by abournenesn

Jul 16, 2009

Rob Dixon's Cause on the RISE After All-Star Tribute Rob Dixon has never won a World Series, Super Bowl or Stanley Cup. But he’s still a champion.

This week, the founder and executive director of Project RISE represented the Red Sox as Boston’s “All-Star Among Us” in St. Louis at the 80th Midsummer Classic. One of 30 “All-Stars” — one for each major league team — Dixon was honored in a video tribute during the pregame ceremony at Busch Stadium.

He was kind enough to take a few minutes to talk about the work he does, his philosophy on life and the importance of giving.

What is Project RISE?
It’s an acronym actually. It means Respect, Integrity and Success through Education.

What does the program do? Could you give a little more background for people who might not know about it?
It’s an academic and cultural enrichment program for disadvantaged youth in greater Boston in grades two through 11.

How did the idea for RISE originate, and how did you get involved?
I’m the founder of the program, and the original idea when I started this in 1993 was to deal with at-risk males. In ’94, we actually went co-ed. So this was about supporting young people in the city of Boston that were struggling during a time of violence, gangs and other things that were going on negatively in the communities. We tried to provide a positive alternative, and we wanted to empower these kids by giving them academic support that would help them prepare themselves better for school and hopefully beyond.

What’s the most challenging part of your job?
Fundraising — and you can capitalize that. Fundraising, fundraising, fundraising. I mean, that’s been the biggest challenge. Obviously, with the economy in the state that it’s in now, we’ve had about a 30 to 40 percent drop in support. Right now, we’re operating at about a 30 percent deficit. So obviously, funding is the greatest challenge. Although I do enjoy going out and promoting the program and speaking to people, the challenge remains finding funding to make sure the program continues to support the families and kids that benefit from it.

What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
The transformation these kids go through. We’ve taken risks on kids — kids that have failed three or four subjects, kids who have been referred by juvenile probation officers, [and as a result of their involvement in Project RISE] they have gone on to college. Just that transformation. You can’t put a dollar value on watching kids transform or change their lives. So for me, that’s what makes it worthwhile. It’s empowering, it’s inspirational, it’s motivational just being around young people and realizing that they begin to believe in their own potential, begin to realize they can change their circumstances, and I think that’s beautiful.

Do you still keep in touch with some of the students who you’ve helped along the way?
Yes, I have. Actually, some of them are here [at the program’s site in Braintree] now. They are volunteering. Some work. We’ve been able to create a great feeder system in terms of role models and young people coming back and becoming positive examples for other younger people, so it’s been terrific. Some are in finance. Some have gone into education. We have a couple who have gone into law. There are one or two in pre-med. Some of these kids have come from very difficult circumstances and have done wonderful things.

When does the program run?
This year, we went to an eight-week program. We started June 29, and we will be in operation until Aug. 21. So it’s a longer program. Normally, we’ve been running for six weeks. But we went to eight weeks. We had some complaints from parents because there was idle time at the end of school, and there was dead time before school starts up. We decided to run a full eight-week program this summer.

What’s a typical day for students at RISE? Is it a classroom setting? How does it work?
They have breakfast in the morning. Then they are in class from 9 to 12:30. Then they have lunch. After lunch, it’s just general camp activities — they go swimming, play basketball, flag football, do archery and arts and crafts, and those kinds of fun things that general camps do. But what makes us unique is our academic component. Most of the work is somewhat accelerated. The kids in some cases can improve their grade level by one and, in some cases, two grades.  So you can have a kid that’s a rising sixth grader in math who could be potentially be doing seventh- and eighth-grade math by the time they finish the program.

How many kids are in the program this summer?
We have about 140. Last summer, we had nearly 300 kids enrolled and we had five sites open. But because of the economic downturn, we had to close three sites. So we lost about 160 kids from last summer. But we have two sites in operation now with about 140 kids total.

Where are those sites located?
In Braintree. They are on the campus of Thayer Academy. We have no affiliation with Thayer — we are just housed there to run the program.

Who are the teachers who teach the classes?
They vary. Some are from Boston public schools. Some are from parochial schools. We have a couple from private schools. So it’s a variety of teachers. Many have been in education for a number of years, though. One of the things I take a tremendous amount of pride in is the staff, particularly the faculty that teaches the kids.

Are all the costs covered through charitable donations?
Yes. About 20 percent of it is tuition-driven. The other 75-80 percent has to be through fundraising. The cost per student is about $4,300. We have to raise 75-80 percent of that, and then we try to charge a modest tuition to families so they can afford it. Even in that respect, we probably sponsor about 40 percent of the kids that are currently enrolled.

One-hundred percent sponsorship?
It varies. Some will be 100, some will be 50. It depends on the circumstances of the families. We like to encourage families to pay something. Even if it’s $50, we ask them to do something in terms of contributing toward the child’s experience in the program.

You played basketball at the University of New Hampshire. What did you learn from that experience, and how do you feel sports factor into education?
I learned personally from the UNH experience that there are obstacles there, but you can’t let those obstacles deter you from what you want to do with your life, especially in sports. Obviously, UNH is not a powerhouse basketball program. Actually, if I had skates and a hockey stick, I’d probably in the NHL by now. But the reality is, I played basketball there.

What it did is it kind of gave me the discipline and the determination to really work hard to get what I wanted from that experience. Now just in general, sports have obviously given young people opportunities to better themselves, whether through college or even financially those who reach that highest level. But I think there’s a lot of discipline and commitment you have to make to be a good athlete. I always tell young people that that same commitment you make as an athlete, if you make that as a student, you are going to open up even more options for yourself, whether you play a sport or not. So it comes down to the discipline and commitment that it takes to compete at a high level, and then understanding that, you translate that into academics, which is obviously going to open more doors for you.

What did you study in school?
Economics and history. I majored in history and minored in econ.

What did you do after you graduated before you started RISE?
I actually worked in the school system and spent a couple years playing basketball overseas. I had a good experience doing that. I got a chance to travel and go places I probably can’t even pronounce as a result of that. Then I came back and started teaching in the Boston school system and then was offered a job here at Thayer in Braintree to teach history and economics. And that was about 22 years ago.

What country did you play basketball in?
England and Italy.

Did you play in the NBA?
I was drafted by the Washington Bullets and was with them through preseason. Then I got an offer to go overseas. I jumped on that, and I think the overseas thing worked out well for me and was a great experience.

What year were you drafted?

In what round?
The fifth round. I think I’m the first player ever drafted out of UNH for basketball. And my brother-in-law was the second. We kept it in the family.

Which team drafted him?
Houston Rockets. Al McClain is his name. He was drafted in the fifth round in 1984, the year after I was drafted.

Who were some of your sports heroes growing up, and who did you look up to outside of the sports world?
Of course, people like Jackie Robinson transcended sport and really opened up opportunities for African-Americans and other athletes across the board. One of my personal favorites was Julius Erving. I liked the way Doc handled himself as a player and how he carried himself off the court. Actually, I took pride in wearing my afro like Doc used to wear his back in the ‘70s. That was one of my favorites at that time — as a basketball player, that was an easy fit. I loved Magic, obviously. I loved his energy and the way he played. He seemed to really love to play the game.

Off the field, family, parents, local folks that really kind of kept me on track and put me in things to keep me focused on what I wanted to do with my life. Those became my immediate heroes simply because those were people that I could identify with and I could have constant contact with.

You are a hero to a lot of kids. Was there someone like yourself who you looked up to when you were growing up?
Yeah, there were a few people like that. I don’t know if these are the same things that I’m doing for others now. I mean I think they planted seeds in terms of giving back, being responsible and helping others in need. I think a lot of that comes from my mother and father in terms of being home. But there were a lot of folks around me, guys at the Boys & Girls Clubs, guys at community centers, Joseph Lee School, we used to go down there to play. These are people — again, they’re not well-known folks — but they instilled certain discipline and values in you about being responsible and giving back to other people that need it.

Which current athletes do you admire and view as positive role models?
Athletics has changed so much. When you talk about the positive athlete, I’m gonna probably associate that with somebody who’s not necessarily talented as an athlete, but somebody who is committed to giving back community service. I think of people like Kevin Youkilis and what he’s trying to do with his foundation. I know Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce and Ray Allen do a lot with their specific interests. I look at athletes now not so much for their talent but what they can provide to others that may not be in the same situation as they’re in. So when you say athletes, I’m not thinking about guys who are talented or skilled — I mean there’s a bunch of them — but I’m thinking in terms of what that responsibility means to be an athlete. Now I’m not sure that all of them understand that. But the reality is, I respect those that are providing community service and giving back to folks that need support.

What’s the best piece of advice someone ever gave you?
I think it would be my father. My father basically told me that whatever you want to do in life, just keep working at it. You may fail, you’re going to fall a few times, you’re going to hit some roadblocks. But you’ve got to just keep plugging away. That’s one of the things I learned early on — failure is a part of success. I wasn’t afraid to fail because I was encouraged by my dad, who suggested that whatever’s out there, whatever you want to do, give it a shot. And don’t be afraid to fail at it. That’s how you learn, that’s how you get better. And in most cases, that’s how you become successful.

If you could impart one life lesson to a kid, what would it be?
I honestly believe in giving back. I’ve been around it so long. I see the impact it has with young people. I’d like to see this happen earlier. I know Barack Obama is talking about this community service initiative. But I’d like to see young people really take some more responsibility about giving back to those who need it. It’s really not asking much but time and commitment. But I think it’s so rewarding and so empowering for young people that it really has an influence on how they grow and learn and appreciate one another. I just don’t think we have enough of it, to be honest with you.

How special is that moment when the light bulb goes on for kids and they get excited about learning?
It’s incredible. There are almost instances where you can see it taking place, or you can see the wheels in motion, and everything starting to click, where the kids finally begin to believe that they can do this. They believe that they can achieve something other than what they’ve been directed to believe, or the stereotypes associated with their performance or abilities, or whatever the case may be. It’s very difficult to explain. But I’m sure a lot of kids feel a sense of euphoria beginning to believe in their own abilities. I like to see that. I’m constantly trying to instill and encourage kids to reach more in terms of their abilities or expectations or challenges — because all those things help them grow.

What is it like getting all this national exposure, representing the Red Sox and Boston as an “All-Star Among Us”?
When we were down in St. Louis, I said all this is great. But I feel a little guilty because I think, in some ways, I’m benefiting from it, but it’s not about me. It’s about the kids I’m trying to work with and provide these opportunities to. So our goal and our objective is to really generate funds to secure this for the hundreds and maybe thousands of kids we can potentially reach over the next few years.

There are plenty of All-Stars beyond the box scores. Thanks to Rob Dixon for being one of them.

You can watch Dixon’s interview with Cole Wright on Thursday’s edition of SportsDesk here:

For more information on Project RISE or to make a donation, visit

Previous Article

Watson Turns Back Clock to Shoot Opening-Round 65

Next Article

Jets’ Sanchez Could Be Money-Making Ambassador for NFL

Picked For You