On Dec. 21, 1992, the Louisiana Secretary of State recognized the incorporation of the Louisiana Child Caring Foundation — the entity that eventually became the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation.
In recognition of our 25th anniversary, we’re catching up with grantees, starting with our 23 classes of Angel Award honorees.
Like the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation, the Young Leaders Academy is celebrating its 25th anniversary. It was for his work with the YLA that the late Kirt Bennett was nominated for the Angel Award in 2000.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Bennett graduated from high school in New Orleans and came to LSU on an athletic scholarship. An African-American Republican political activist and businessman, Bennett ran for office several times but never won an election. (Although he was elected president of LSU’s Student Government Association.) However, the work he accomplished as first executive director of the Young Leaders Academy arguably did more for the state of Louisiana, in particular the African-American community, than any he could have done as a state representative or lieutenant governor.
The organization’s mission statement is straightforward: “To nurture the development of leadership abilities of young African-American males, empowering them to improve the quality of their lives and assist them in becoming productive citizens.” Bennett drummed up financial support from the business sector and community support from schools, churches and families. He hired three educators and recruited 45 third grade boys from six inner city schools to start the first class of the YLA in June 1994.
Prospective members of the Academy must be nominated by their elementary school principals based on their demonstrated traits of leadership. YLA boys have appeared twice on the Oprah Winfrey Show, but more importantly, they have very high passage rates on scholastic achievement tests. Not surprising, since Academy members spend Saturday mornings during the school year on the Southern University campus in language, math and leadership development classes. Community service is also an integral part of the program.
Bennett passed away in 2010 at the age of 42, but his legacy is in good hands under the direction of Tonya Robertson, who has been with the organization for 16 years. She came on board not long after Bennett earned the Angel Award for his work with the YLA and remembers, “It validated the Academy and Mr. Bennett’s leadership.”
“At the time when I first came in 2001 there was a buzz in the community about his winning the Angel Award and everybody was very proud of him.”
Reflecting on the organization’s upcoming anniversary, Robertson says, “A lot of things have changed, externally in the community and internally with the young men that we work with. I’m probably one of the few (nonprofit) executives that live, work and play in the same area. I see what it looks like after five o’clock so I get up and come to work every day with a sense of authenticity. As we get ready to celebrate our 25th anniversary, I think it’s more important than ever that the Academy be here.”