Entrepreneur Mark Papadas had his “A-HA!” moment in bed one night, unable to sleep. “Like a lot of people, I was looking for work in 2008 after a career opportunity didn’t survive the economy,” explained Mr. Papadas, “and as I was lying in bed, I realized I could go back to doing what I know best, which is helping people. This time I wanted to help kids.”
Mark Papadas had a career in sales (and later, sales training) as well as motivational speaking and thought he could put that skill set to good use.
Mr. Papadas got so excited he got out of bed and started writing down ideas, which would eventually turn into the non-profit I Am 4 Kids. When his wife woke in the morning and found him in the kitchen, she asked if he had been up all night and he had to shush her. “I was in the zone and didn’t want to lose anything,” he laughed.
I Am 4 Kids is a learning and self esteem building tool being given for free to schools across the country and teaches children the value of believing in themselves.
“I did over 8 months of research and development,” said Mr. Papadas, “and got the input of teachers, principals, child psychologists and other educators that directly interacted with young kids and knew the challenges they faced in building their identities and believing in themselves.”
The program sounds simple at first glance but really is a years long self esteem building program that aims to first build young children’s belief in themselves, then belief into what they can do and eventually into mentors and leaders of other young people going through the same process.
“It starts simple,” said Mr. Papadas. The teacher will have each child write on a sheet of paper the words, ‘I AM….’ and the children each fill in whatever it is that they believe they are.” He went on to say that in tests of the program oftentimes 50% or more of children will write things negative such as “I am stupid” and that was motivation for him to move quickly.
“Children and adults tend to become what they think they are,” explained Mr. Papadas, “and if we can get them to believe in themselves now they will grow into confident young adults.”
The program is based on 5 steps that gradually lead children to build a positive self-image and to start sharing it with the outside world. Once these ideas have been “anchored” in a child’s sub-conscious, they move on to what Mr. Papadas thinks is the most exciting part.
“Steps 4 and 5 involve the students taking their new found self esteem and deciding on and completing projects. Say a fourth grader named Mark wants to repaint the equipment at his local park. I Am 4 Kids will have a meeting and get Mark on a conference call with someone that might donate paint to the project. We facilitate the call and then put Mark on the phone to explain his idea and what he needs, in this case paint. Once someone donates the paint, we share updates with Mark’s parents and teachers to keep the project on track until completion and then Mark has the satisfaction of having completed a major project himself and building self confidence along the way.”
As Mr. Papadas continued to explain, he showed me his arms and the goose bumps he had. “I love this,” he said, “I am so thrilled people have responded well to this and we are helping kids. After kids finish their projects, they do another more ambitious project. Or they mentor a younger student who is going off to do their first project. It’s the job of I Am 4 Kids to help make these things happen.”
To help students show off their progress, Mr. Papadas shared that they are also preparing young students in the digital realm as well. “I Am 4 Kids is going to have what I would call a secure ‘LinkedIn’ for kids that will allow them to create a profile and show off the progress they are making in the program, including the projects they are completing. Numerous safeguards are in place through the schools and parents and we are just thrilled at the opportunity it provides.”
As proof of concept, 14 school districts in Illinois have agreed to run the program and Mr. Papadas is in talks with the city of New Orleans, who has shown an interest in putting the program in all their schools in the city.
I Am 4 Kids has done so well in so short a time that it attracted the charitable arm of the NFL. “I got a phone call one day and was informed that the NFL picks seven charities to feature at the Superbowl and that we were one of them,” he said. “I asked them what they were going to charge me to be there,” he laughed, “but they explained they were going to pay for me to come and show off ‘I Am 4 Kids!’ I couldn’t believe it.”
In the week before the Superbowl, the NFL designates one day of each week for a charity and brings through the press, potential corporate sponsors, members of the NFL Legends organization (made up of former NFL players) and allows the charity to put on a presentation for all in attendance.
“We are definitely in a fund raising stage,” said Mr. Papadas, “and having the NFL choose us out of all existing non-profits is just huge” he said. “Having the NFL seal of approval along with so many schools signing on has really just let us know we are doing the right thing and we are looking forward to major success going forward.”