The Rebound Team
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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."

Rob Dixon Lisa Nugent/UNH Photographic Services

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.

Rob Dixon Lisa Nugent/UNH Photographic Services

"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.

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