Now the Foundation is guided by two boards comprising elementary and secondary school teachers and administrators, and a third board of community leaders who interact with the LJFF's 100-percent volunteer staff. This helps them tweak the program and quickly solicit crucial feedback.
During the 2011 NBA lockout, as the league grinded to a halt as players and owners battled over a new collective bargaining agreement, LJFF was able to get more time with James. That was good in a way, but more importantly, it was a teaching moment in how parents found a central role in the program.
One such day had LeBron visiting a school. The Foundation fielded numerous calls from parents who wanted to join their children that day for the event. Concerned that a flood of people might disrupt the event, LJFF turned the parents away. Afterward, the board explained how hard (and crucial) it was to get parent involvement.
"They said we would die if the parents called saying they wanted to come, and you're saying, 'No,'" Campbell remembers. "From that moment on, everything changed, and everything we do now involves a parent. Every outing, every field trip, every meeting — we always invite a parent to come. It's a pillar of our program."
Every month LJFF goes to one of the 30 elementary schools the kids attend and takes them on an excursion. Some destinations are suggestions from the board, some are suggestions from the crowd, and some are specially suggested by the King, himself.
Over a recent holiday weekend, James attended a symphony orchestra for the first time and was so struck by the experience that he insisted LJFF take their kids to a special kids-oriented show by the Cleveland Orchestra in March.
"We always include an outing that is an experience that exposes them to something different, coupled with a dinner," Rosa says. "We believe it is very important to sit down with the family and spend time with them over a meal."
James participation isn't limited to his memorabilia and financial donations. He appears at events, records weekly video messages, leaves frequent blogs entries and even sends personal letters and makes phone calls to encourage "his kids." Yes, he's as indefatigable off the court as on.
"The inspiration is simple, it's the kids and for me to be able to be a part of something that's so special and for these kids to be able to get direct contact with me," he says. "It means a lot to me, and it's pretty cool we're able to do things like have a field trip to Cedar Point and take them places for their reward for doing so many great things in school. I'm happy to have such a great program." he says. "It means a lot to me, and it's pretty cool we're able to do things like have a field trip to Cedar Point and take them places for their reward for doing so many great things in school. I'm happy to have such a great program."
As the families dine on food supplied by Old Carolina BBQ Company, Jennings CLC principal Rochelle Brown-Hall effuses about the program's ability to get kids who'd had trouble in school to focus. She compares it to LeBron's homecoming letter where he noted that in Northeast Ohio, "nothing is given, everything is earned."
"They do very nice things for them but they also hold them accountable academically," says Brown-Hall. "It's interesting, there is one young lady here who wasn't doing her best and then they didn't allow her to go on a field trip and now she's doing a whole lot better. So most of them do well in the first place, but the idea that the Foundation has that impact has made a difference."
Indeed, as the oldest kids, the sixth graders, moved into middle school, LJFF added a service component. Recently they went to the Richard Howe House in downtown Akron where they cleaned trash, weeded, mulched and otherwise beautified the grounds around the historic Erie Canalway building. Earlier in the year they attended a University of Akron football game, then helped clean up the stadium afterwards.
Tiffany Taylor's seen the change in her son Jayden just in this year, in which he's won a BUG (Bringing Up Grades) and a citizenship award.
"He'd been bugging me ever since we got to Friday he wanted to get here," says Taylor at the Jennings monthly event. "I said, 'Jayden, I know why you're excited — you think Mr. LeBron is going to be there.' And he said 'No, I just want to go.' He likes answering the questions and being around other kids."
Before the door prizes are handed out and the $1,000 grocery tab to Giant Eagle is awarded (once a month to someone spotted sporting a Just Cling It sticker on their house or car), the kids, sporting their "I Promise" wristbands, gather at the front of the auditorium to recite their pledge to LeBron and his pledge to them.
They promise him they will go to school, be respectful to their parents, teachers and peers, be active and make good decisions. In return, he promises them that he will be the best role model he can be, on and off the court.
"This is the promise between LeBron
and his kids," Rosa says turning over one of the bands in her hands. "They know what this means. Every time we're together, every time he's with them, we always say the promise. I failed a test, I can do better, but there is going to be another test, and this isn't the end."
Before the Foundation, most of James' successes have come around basketball or marketing ventures, like Beats Audio. His association with Akron basketball coach Keith Dambrot in high school helped the Akron native overcome an unfortunate incident at Eastern Michigan that blackballed him among the college coaching community.
Since taking over Akron's head coaching reins in 2004, Dambrot's led the team to 10 straight 20-plus win seasons, made three NCAA tournaments and three NIT tourneys, making it to the second round three times. He's consistently fielded the best college basketball team in Northeast Ohio since Kevin Mackey's heyday at Cleveland State in the '80s.
LeBron has lent his hand, not only making Nike's sponsorship of the Akron basketball team part of his contract but by making frequents guest appearances. He used to host his summer basketball camp on the Akron campus and still can be found hooping it up on campus.