SBJ/June 4 - 10, 2001/No Topic Name

Leonsis helps make a dream come true for D.C. student

The cards were stacked against Michael Hendrickson. He was living with his mother, three brothers and four sisters in a small apartment in an inner-city neighborhood in southeast Washington. He had no father figure in his life and virtually no support system when it came to academics.

His luck turned last summer.

The senior at Washington's H.D. Woodson High School got into the Hoop Dreams program and found out his mentor would be Ted Leonsis, a senior executive at America Online and owner of the Washington Capitals.

Now, just a year later, Hendrickson has an internship at the Capitals' office and is preparing to attend Hampton University in the fall, becoming the first male in his family to go to college.

The Hoop Dreams mentoring program, part of the Hoop Dreams Scholarship Fund, matches professionals from the business community with students from inner-city high schools. The goal: getting the students prepared for and admitted to college.

"He helps me not only academically, but with personal problems," Hendrickson said of Leonsis. "I consider him to be a second father. Ted has always been there for me whenever I need him."

Woodson High School teacher Susie Kay started Washington's Hoop Dreams program in 1996 with a one-day, three-on-three charity basketball game that raised $3,000. Five years later, Hoop Dreams is a year-round effort, awarding more than $500,000 in scholarships annually. The basketball tournament still takes place — 128 teams are set to hit the court Saturday.

Since 1996, the program (hoopdreams.org) has awarded more than 330 academic scholarships, with renewals going to 236 students. Kay said she hoped to award $500,000 by the end of May and then raise several hundred thousand more by the end of August.

Leonsis got involved after committing $25,000 to the scholarship fund.

"I approached Ted with the normal regimen: Will you be a sponsor? Will you be a big sponsor? Will you be on the board?" Kay said. "He said, 'I really just want to be a mentor in the mentoring program.' "

Like all mentors, Leonsis spent the 2000-01 school year working with Hendrickson.

"I look at this kid and go, 'I want to hire him,' " Leonsis said. "He's one of eight kids and doesn't know his dad. They live in a one- or two-bedroom apartment. I think several family members have been incarcerated. He's just risen above all of this."

Leonsis spent time with Hendrickson regularly and e-mailed him every day to see how he was doing in school.

They had a deal: Hendrickson e-mailed Leonsis before and after a test to talk about how he prepared and how he performed. Leonsis also helped Hendrickson prepare for the SAT and apply for colleges and scholarships.

"It's very complex and complicated, and no one in his family had ever done this before," Leonsis said. "So when he got in, it was like, 'Wow.' There was an unbelievable sense of accomplishment for the two of us."

The program has volunteer mentors from many segments of the business community. All 60 of the seniors participating in the program are expected to attend college. Fifty-eight of the 60 have applied for Hoop Dreams scholarships. The mentors will see them through college, continuing relationships and providing support.

Kay said the key to the program is the continued mentoring, and she initially wondered how to manage Leonsis as a mentor.

"There's a lot of tough love," Kay said. "I have to stay on the mentors. I thought, 'How am I going to stay on Ted Leonsis?' But I never had to from the first second."

Because of the experience in the mentoring programs, Leonsis created the Leonsis Scholar within the Hoop Dreams Scholarship Fund. Each year, four D.C. students will be awarded a $10,000 scholarship for each year they stay in college and meet certain academic requirements.

Leonsis hopes to get more of the business community involved.

"There's got to be hundreds of thousands of kids just like [Michael] in the city," Leonsis said. "It's our duty to help these kids do well."

Cynthia Hobgood writes for the Washington Business Journal.

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