UNH basketball legend Robin Dixon ’83 helps at-risk kids change their game plan—before it’s too late.
Rob Dixon ’83 had a hard time getting his bearings after the shooting. He was 11 years old, and the guys who showed up that afternoon in his Dorchester, Mass., neighborhood came to his house first. When no one answered the door, they went across the street and found his best friend, George. Their plan was simple: they’d steal some cash from the local convenience store; George, the youngest, would be the lookout. Then they’d all share in the take. The robbery was over in a flash. The older boys had already run off with the money by the time the owner came after them with his gun. When he fired, only George was still within range.
For a long time, Dixon was haunted by the fact that it could have been him, that he was alive but his friend wasn’t. “We were Mutt and Jeff,” he says. “We did everything together. But we got in with the wrong crowd.” Disruptive and disrespectful at school, Dixon had a simple goal—to be cool. Which meant figuring out who he was going to beat up each day, and how he could make his teachers miserable. “I was a gangster,” says Dixon, who credits his mother, the spiritual center of their large family, and his father, an avid reader despite having only finished the fourth grade, with helping him find his way. “My parents were hardworking people who managed to raise 13 kids,” he says. “They told me I’d better use my life to do something for George.”
Today, Dixon helps save the lives, both literally and figuratively, of hundreds of at-risk kids through Project RISE (Respect, Integrity and Success through Education). “I started this program as an answer to gang violence in my own community,” says Dixon, who lives in Brockton, not far from the strife-ridden neighborhood where he grew up. Every child who makes it through Project RISE and moves on to a productive life is another blow to the forces that struck down his friend so many years ago. Every success story is a tribute to George.
DIXON’S OWN PATH to a better life began almost by accident when a friend got him to fill out an application for private high school. “It gave me an excuse to skip math class,” he says, chuckling. The last thing he expected was to get in. But a few months later, an acceptance letter appeared in the mail. And in September, when he stepped off the bus for the first time in front of his new school’s ivy-covered brick buildings, Dixon thought he was in the wrong place. Thayer Academy in Braintree, Mass., was only a few miles away from his inner-city school, but it might as well have been in a foreign country. “I was completely overwhelmed and unprepared,” says Dixon, who was one of only four African-Americans on campus. He struggled to fit in both academically and socially.
But by the time he was offered a basketball scholarship to UNH, Dixon had adjusted to his new life and become a diligent student and successful athlete. At UNH, he made new friends, majored in history, minored in economics—and set fire to the basketball program. “Rob helped bring the team to an all-time high in the early ’80s,” says Scott Weitzell, director of operations for UNH basketball. “He and Al McClain ’84 were two of the greatest guards who ever played at UNH.” The two friends remain the top scorers in Wildcat history.
After graduation, Dixon was drafted to play with the Washington Bullets, and then, when he was cut from the roster before the season began, played professional basketball in Europe for two years before returning to Boston to spend more time with his young family. He took a job as a substitute teacher during the day, but nights found him back on the basketball court, this time as an assistant coach at Boston University, where he worked alongside Bill Herrion, who now coaches the UNH team. In 1989, Dixon took a job at his high school alma mater, teaching history and coaching basketball.
Much as he loved being a professional athlete and a college and high school coach, Dixon always viewed basketball as a stepping-stone to something else. “It helped open doors for me,” he acknowledges, “but what I really wanted was to give others a chance at the same education I was able to have.” Teaching at Thayer was a start, but Dixon wasn’t reaching the kids he most wanted to help—the ones, he says, “who looked like me” and were floundering in troubled communities.
Dixon got the idea for Project RISE one day in 1993 as he was watching his son play a video game and worrying about his exposure to screen violence. He was also disturbed by the persistence of real-life violence in his community—recent shootings had just claimed the lives of two more young men he knew. “That was the spark,” says Dixon, who launched the program with $17,000 (from a friend, Danny Wood, of the band New Kids on the Block), three teachers and 17 African-American teens, half of whom had been referred by their probation officers.
Since the first year, the intensive academic and cultural enrichment program has grown to enroll as many as 300 students each summer, with a staff of 30 teachers and counselors, many of whom are Project RISE graduates. Most students accepted into the six-week program (which is located at, but not sponsored by, Thayer), come back year after year. And each September, when Project RISE kids return to their public schools, they almost always find themselves ahead of their peers, sometimes having advanced a grade level in math or English. They often have more confidence, more motivation—and, for the first time, they have goals. They see college in their future. And careers. During the school year, homework sessions on Saturdays keep kids on track and in touch. “We have very little attrition,” says Dixon, who notes that 80 percent of the students return each summer. “There’s a constant waiting list.”
Dixon describes the program as a careful blend of challenging academics and enrichment activities, powered by staff members who serve as mentors and role models. “It takes a special kind of person to teach these kids,” he says. “The main thing I look for is character. Degrees and academic accomplishments mean very little. They have to be able to handle diversity, to motivate kids who don’t want to learn.”
Project RISE is different from other programs for at-risk youth, explains Mike Sheehan, a Thayer Academy board member who has known Dixon since their days as students and teammates at Thayer. “The program isn’t just about getting kids off the street and giving them something to do,” he says. “Rob convinces them that they can achieve at the highest level. He pushes them to their limits—and a lot of these kids have never been pushed before.” Sheehan, who is CEO of the advertising giant Hill Holliday, remembers Dixon as a role model early on. “I learned a lot about leadership from Rob,” he says. “He pushed us to be a better basketball team. He’s very quiet, but he knows how to get people to achieve excellence.”
During a summer day at Project RISE, the 6-foot-3 executive director is clearly at the center of everything—dropping in and out of classrooms, high-fiving students in the hallway, calling kids on their bad language, sitting down one-on-one to talk when somebody needs a listening ear. Dixon and his wife, Almanda, the sister of his UNH teammate McClain (who runs a youth basketball league in nearby Roxbury), maintain an open-door policy at home, too, setting extra places at the dinner table when students stop by, hosting movie-and-popcorn nights, and providing extra beds. Like Dixon’s three kids, who have grown up with the program, attending as students and later as counselors, Project RISE participants are part of the family. “These kids need to feel like they belong to something larger than themselves,” he says. “Something that will be there for them, something they can come back to.”
In 2009, the program received national recognition when Dixon was chosen from thousands of nominations in the “All-Stars Among Us” initiative created by People magazine and Major League Baseball. Before a television audience and sold-out Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Dixon stood with the 29 other top winners as all five living U.S. presidents appeared in a video salute to the volunteers. In his comments, former President George W. Bush praised Dixon, and the two met later in Dallas to discuss the program. But Dixon brushes aside the laurels. “What I do isn’t extraordinary,” he insists. “It may have extraordinary results, but it should be a natural thing that people give back to their communities. It’s just what you do.”
DALE TAYLOR’S INITIAL MEETING with Dixon was rough. “I didn’t want to hear anything he had to say,” says Taylor, who was being arraigned in court for resisting arrest. “There was no way I could imagine leaving the only life I knew.” Not long after their meeting, though, Taylor got a phone call. It was his best friend. He was 17, and he’d just been sentenced to three years in jail. “It was his first time in an adult jail,” says Taylor, “and he called me crying.” Taylor, who was 14, made up his mind to ask his probation officer for a second chance. And Dixon agreed to meet again, ignoring a school administrator who told him not to waste his time. “He was sure,” he says, “that this kid wasn’t going to amount to anything.” Nothing irks Dixon more than adults who give up on kids. Where others may see a hopeless case, he sees a challenge—a kid with untapped potential. And so, in 1993, the summer before ninth grade, Taylor found himself enrolled in Project RISE.
The culture shock nearly knocked the wind out of him. “I hated it,” says Taylor of his first days in the program. “I felt stupid and intimidated. I had to read out loud in class for the first time. I was used to teachers who just looked at the newspaper during class, who didn’t care what we did.” Dixon knew exactly what Taylor was facing. “When I meet these kids, it’s like seeing myself when I was younger,” he says. And he understood they’d need support. Every day after school, Taylor and many of the other students left Thayer’s polished classrooms and went home to neighborhoods where their friends were getting arrested and going to jail and where there were memorials on nearly every street corner for shooting victims, many of them children.
The hardest thing about his new path, recalls Taylor, was coming to grips with what he had to leave behind—old friends, old habits, a familiar world. Dixon is an expert at coaching kids through the painful process of letting go of their past. “My job is to push, to help them understand that it’s OK to fall down as long as you realize you can get up and keep going,” he says. “I ask them, why take the risk of selling drugs and getting shot and killed, when you could just hurt your pride instead? There are no coffins involved with getting your pride damaged.”
Sometimes the transformation in Project RISE students is immediate. “It didn’t take long before Dale started asking for homework,” Dixon recalls. But the real proof of the power of the program is often confirmed years later. Today, two decades after his first Project RISE summer, Taylor has an undergraduate degree in business from Siena College, where he works as an assistant director of admissions. He owns a home and is pursuing an M.B.A. from Sage College of Albany. “If I hadn’t found Project RISE, I’d be dead or in jail,” says Taylor, remembering the friend who called from jail—and was later murdered on a street corner. “I wish,” says Taylor, his voice quiet, “that he could have had the same chance that I did.”
ON A MID-JULY DAY, a sixth-grade Project RISE science class is outside in the hot sun attempting to set marshmallows on fire with their solar cookers—or at least toast them. The teacher talks about condensation with one student, reminds another to record his observations, and sparks cheers when she announces that they’ll make s’mores with the gooey results of their experiments. Later, in math class, everyone is hunched over, doing calculations and taking turns at the blackboard. A few kids needle the teacher: they want another candy problem—a wildly popular competition that awards a candy bar to the group who does the quickest calculations. In English class, the computer lab is quiet except for the sound of clicking keys. Students title their pieces with names like “My Nightmare” or “Death and the True Meaning of Life.” One girl is working on a story about stab wounds.
In nearly every classroom, counselors circulate, providing one-on-one tutoring. Each counselor is an example of a real-life success story. Isabel Lorenzo was sent to Project RISE as punishment by her mother. She had no interest in academics and even less in going to college. “My grades were terrible, especially in math,” she says. “But Project RISE made me love math—and made me good at it.” Today, Lorenzo is an economics major at Howard University and, like many in the program, is the first in her family to attend college. She returns every summer to work as a counselor.
Math teacher Billy O’Dwyer Jr., of candy problem fame, says the combination of counselors who, like Lorenzo, aren’t much older than the students, positive peer pressure and high-energy teaching gets students to sit up and pay attention and also taps their innate desire to prove themselves. Dixon puts so much faith in his staff, according to O’Dwyer, that they want to excel, too. “It’s not just at-risk kids whom he reaches,” says O’Dwyer (son of former Boston Bruins player Billy O’Dwyer), who had Dixon as an economics teacher and basketball coach at Thayer. “He’s proof of what can be achieved by incredibly hard work. He leads by example.”
History teacher Napoleon Lherisson sometimes has a sense of deja vu, recalling that just eight years ago, he was a student himself. When he started in the program as a ninth grader, Lherisson was reading at a fifth-grade level. His math skills were equally poor. “Ironically, he’d been on the honor roll for three years,” says Dixon, describing a problem he sees often—students caught in an overloaded system, who, as long as they’re not acting up, get passed from one grade to the next. “We took a chance on him,” says Dixon, whose hunch paid off. “He worked so hard,” he adds, “that he inspired others to believe in him, too.”
Today Lherisson, who attended Thayer and then Brandeis, is Dixon’s colleague during the school year, teaching history at Thayer on a two-year teaching fellowship. His subject is African-American history. “I want to expose these kids to new ideas, to tell them to always seek the truth,” he says. “I hope they’ll get a deeper understanding of who they are.”
Like Lherisson and Taylor, who have both pursued careers working with young people, most Project RISE graduates consider Dixon their role model. For Tyrece Gibbs ’09, Dixon was also a father figure. His own dad was in and out of prison. He and his brothers were in and out of trouble. His mother did the best she could. But not long after Gibbs enrolled in the program, tragedy struck—his older brother was shot and killed. “That was when I realized that this man and this program might have saved my life,” says Gibbs, who eventually followed in his mentor’s footsteps, playing basketball at UNH and joining Dixon as one of the university’s leading scorers. Today, Gibbs works as a safety coordinator for Georgia-Pacific, but he has his eye on another goal: “I want to coach and work with inner-city kids, like Rob Dixon.”
Another former Project RISE student, Jose Edwards, is now a Boston public school administrator—in the same system, he says, that gave up on him when he was a kid. He’s launched several award-winning mentor programs in the city. “It’s all based on Rob’s model,” he says. “Rob taught me about true compassion—and that every moment is a teachable moment.” Taylor, meanwhile, is working to start a version of Project RISE in New York State.
FOR DIXON, THERE IS NO GREATER REWARD than seeing Project RISE graduates move on to their own lives of service. They are living proof of his message: academics and sports are vehicles to overcoming obstacles, building character, and pursuing a meaningful life of contribution—the things that really matter. But Dixon is far from satisfied. Every year he gets calls from tearful mothers begging to get their kids into his program. (More than 80 percent of Project RISE students come from households headed by single mothers.) Knowing he can’t help them all is one of the hardest parts of his job. “There are thousands of kids all over the country who need a program like this,” says Dixon, who can reel off stark figures about public school dropout rates in many American cities. “Education has become a national crisis.”
The recent economic downturn has only made things harder. For years, along with his regular teaching job at the academy, Dixon has almost single-handedly raised $200,000 to $250,000 annually to cover the two-thirds of the program’s operating budget not funded by tuition. In 2008, despite his efforts, the program lost 40 percent of its funding and was forced to raise tuition, bringing in more students from suburban schools who could afford the increase—and making it unaffordable for some of those who needed it most. Enrollment has been cut in half, Dixon has stopped drawing a salary, and he has put some of his own money into the program to help keep it afloat.
“It’s difficult to convince people to invest in something like this,” says Dixon, noting that the program is always looking for sponsors to support student scholarships. “Many still don’t want to take a chance on at-risk, inner-city kids. They think it’s a waste of time and money because these kids aren’t motivated. But the results of our program,” he argues, “contradict this—94 percent finish high school, many go on to community colleges, and nearly 200 have gone on to four-year colleges.”
It’s not unusual for Project RISE graduates to drop in unannounced to surprise Dixon in his office or in the midst of a meeting. Sometimes they’ll manage to sneak up behind him and throw their arms around his towering frame, doing their best to give him a giant bear hug that conveys, better than words ever could, how deeply they appreciate this quiet, unassuming man who saw their potential even when they were sitting in a courtroom, even when they were sullen, unmotivated or afraid—the man who believed in them before they believed in themselves. Every hug he gets is another proof that Dixon’s career as a high-scoring phenomenon has continued off the basketball court. Each one of those hugs is a huge slam-dunk—another life saved.
For more about Project RISE, see www.projectrise.net.