The value of learning and education was instilled in Steven Jackson at a young age.
Though he grew up as a gifted athlete, Steven's family refused to let him take his education for granted. So despite myriad opportunities to ignore schoolwork and limit his focus to his talent on the playing field, SJ39 never put learning second to athletics.
Since becoming a NFL star, Steven has put a concentrated effort into instilling that mentality into other children whenever he can. Whether it be in his native Las Vegas, his adopted hometown of St. Louis or in his many trips around the nation and the world, S-Jax is spreading the important message of education.
SJ39 recently took time out for an interview with Look to the Stars to discuss his charitable efforts in education and the things that have inspired him to give back. Though he has been donating time and resources to charitable efforts since 2004, SJ39 harkened back to a recent trip to Africa, where he learned the global value of giving back:
"I was in Namibia visiting this school for orphans in Africa. In this school the children were so bright and thankful, and I was telling them my life story and where I was from and seeing how interested they were, how they identified with me even though we were miles away from each other. It just let me know that there is such a need not only in Las Vegas and St. Louis but all over," he said. "Everyone wants to be loved and to know they are cared about, and the more I can give the more I shall do so."
To that end, S-Jax believes that there is nothing more valuable than an education and nothing worth sacrificing it for. His Steven Jackson SJ39 Charitable Organization sets out to empower and inspire the nation's youth to overcome adversity so they have a chance to pursue their dreams.
"I had the chance to have academic scholarships," Steven said. "I wanted to do away with the notion that you had to be a dumb jock as well as give [kids] two goals – always stay in school and you can't put a price on education."
In Las Vegas he contributes to the Three Squared program, which sends kids home with backpacks full of healthy food items that they might not have access to outside of school. His foundation has also started a Back to School program that sets kids up with the accommodations needed to get ready for the new year.
"It provides kids with supplies and notebooks, and also we help the kids in the neighborhood," he said. "We'll take them to a local barbershop and pay for the kids to get a haircut so they also can be confident."
The Back to School program is just one of the ways that SJ39 has been working hard to fight the city's dropout rate and encourage kids to stay in school.
"I saw a need in the Vegas community because a great number of our students are barely graduating – our dropout rate is really high, education is lacking," he told Look to the Stars. "We don't have the same advantage of recruiting some good teachers. I wanted to attack this, I wanted to attack student illiteracy and let them know that there is someone from where they are from, who walked the same hallways as they did and who made it."
Steven knows that growing up too fast can be a hindrance to a child's education. He noted that many families in the Las Vegas area rely on their kids to go out, get a job and contribute to the household income early in their teen years.
Often times those role changes force young adults to sacrifice their education. SJ proposes that they instead use their free time to get involved in after-school student activities that will complement what they're learning.
"It doesn't have to be athletic, we get them in leadership programs, even involved with student body activities so they can use their time wisely and grow as young adults," he said. "We don't want them to lose sight of the price of education and you can't assume that you can go back and do something over. You take advantage of it now before it becomes an issue later in life when you wish you would have stayed in school and pursued your education."
Steven told Look to the Stars that when he speaks to kids about continuing their education and what it takes to succeed — as he recently did as the commencement speaker for Las Vegas' Eldorado High's Class of 2012 — he often uses team analogies from his football playing experience to present his points. He believes that most young adults can relate to being part of a unit that needs several functioning parts to succeed and even if they don't, eventually they'll need those skills.
"I try to use the analogy of team dynamics to help kids understand that there is a lot of work involved in what we as individuals can do on our own, and we need to reach out and ask for help and trust that other people will do their job so it all comes together," he said.
In St. Louis, where homelessness is a continuing battle, Steven has worked with the Covenant House, a shelter which houses young adults and kids who have no place else to go. Last November, Steven rented out a banquet hall in St. Louis and hosted 20 young men from Covenant House for a motivational dinner.
SJ39 is also active in a program called Little Bits, which helps young kids in St. Louis that have had to deal with domestic concerns.
"They provide clothing and an outlet where kids can come talk if they have issues at home," he said. "It is a very, very good program that I'm honored to be part of."
Through all of his efforts, Steven's goal is to educate young people on what's most valuable in life, the things they should treasure and cherish and how they can be successful in whatever it is they wish to do.
"I meet young kids all the time when I travel…they see me as larger than life, someone they've seen on TV. But when I actually talk to these children, I don't talk to them about football, I talk to them about life, school and the importance about being a leader among their peers or in their household with their siblings, because these things carry over not only into school, but in life.
"I want them to know that yeah its cool that I play in the NFL, that I play a game for a living, but I want them to understand that there is much more to life than playing a football game."
To read Steven's complete interview with Look to the Stars, click here.