“You’re better than that.”
The sentence rang louder than any classroom bell John Martin heard his tenth-grade year.
“I don’t remember his name, I don’t remember his face, but I remember those four words,” said Martin of the coach who called him out 40-plus years ago for not living up to his potential.
Martin’s downhill descent followed his change from a Miami school that felt like home to a Virginia one feeling anything but. He had thrived academically and socially at the former; was bored and running with the wrong crowd at the latter.
“When you move every two years, your goal is to make new friends,” said Martin, describing his family’s mobile, military lifestyle. “There are typically three ways to make friends: being a class clown, bully or athlete. I was a really good class clown.”
Martin regained his footing thanks to another coach and three friends who saw his promise and applied positive peer pressure to encourage his growth and leadership.
Having that sense of connection and purpose did more than just stick with Martin many years later; it inspired him and his wife, Tammy, to establish the Young Black Leaders Alliance (YBLA) to do the same for other youth across Charlotte, North Carolina, and Atlanta, Georgia.
YBLA’s Ambassadors personify a commitment to student leadership, service and education.Lauri Mumford, Regions Mortgage loan officer
The nonprofit develops young Black men and women into leaders positively impacting their peers, families and communities.
Regions Bank associates in Charlotte recently worked with YBLA participants to compile and distribute teacher appreciation bags across 30-plus schools. Bank team members are also participating in networking events and teaching financial education classes to YBLA youth. Lauri Mumford is one of them.
“YBLA’s Ambassadors personify a commitment to student leadership, service and education,” said Mumford, a Mortgage loan officer. “Spend any time with these talented young people and you’ll find you’re hooked and want to help them succeed.”
Jalen Roddey’s introduction to YBLA 12 years ago began by being called to the principal’s office, but not because he faced the challenges Martin had.
“The fact that I knew the other kids and they were all good kids, I knew it was a good thing,” said Roddey.
It ended up being beyond good. Roddey was encouraged to apply to the Ambassador Program and was accepted.
“I got this sheet describing YBLA and thought, ‘This sounds so cool,’” said Roddey. “YBLA meant being around a group of Black men who wanted to achieve great things and so did I. It was like family from that first moment.”
The Martins are intentional in creating that family atmosphere by welcoming young men like Roddey into their home for YBLA meetings. He considers Martin a second father figure.
“We’ve been working with Jalen since the eleventh grade,” Martin said. “He’s gone through a transition of finding himself; he was searching for who he was.”
That search included exploring engineering before earning a degree in mass communications from North Carolina State A&T University. After graduation, he launched a video production business.
But it was a 2019YBLA mission trip to South Africa to build a home where Roddey’s creativity truly took root.
I’ve always loved to write, and people tell me, ‘You’re good with words.Jalen Roddey
“I’ve always loved to write, and people tell me, ‘You’re good with words,’” he said. “I’d been searching for something to write about, and inspiration struck with four mango trees I saw.”
Roddey’s idea? A children’s fable about compassion, gratitude and serving others. He knew the concept had potential, but self-doubt crept in as he looked to publish it.
“I thought, ‘Who am I to be a children’s book author?’’’ explained Roddey. “But then I realized I was being a follower rather than a leader. It took me a while to understand what Mr. Martin had been trying to show us because it’s so deep. Every time I struggled, I failed, I was on a detour, I was not being a leader. Those are the pitfalls you fall into when you’re not focused.”
With a laser-like focus, Roddey dove into writing a children’s book series about a young mystery-solving detective, penning six books in one year. His seventh book is publishing this month.
“When Jalen first started with us, he had no idea of being an author,” said Martin. “Watching him grow through that has been a joy.”
A joy Martin has not only celebrated but supported. During a holiday toy drive last December, Martin purchased and donated 50 copiesof “The Four Mango Trees” to three schools. Roddey and other YBLA Ambassadors read the book to students. It was a full circle moment, for both the author and his mentor.
“At 16, there’s a picture of me reading someone else’s book to the kids,” Roddey said. “At 28, I’m reading my own book. It’s so powerful.”
Those moments motivate Martin to reach and serve more youth as he reflects on the coach and friends who inspired him to dream bigger and do better.
“For me, it was just about a young man who was going in the wrong direction,” he said. “I tell our staff we’re in a very special position where we get to shape the future. Not many people have that opportunity, but we do. That’s the power of what we can create.”