The irony of helping students at a small high school north of Detroit is not lost on Captain Pete Popovich. Having attended a small school with limited resources south of Chicago himself, Popovich got lucky. Real lucky, if you ask him.
Thanks to the guidance of an inspired school counselor and a stable home environment, Pete was able to chase his aviation dreams through high school and into college. Eventually, his dream soared into reality and he found himself in the left seat of his dream job as a commercial pilot at Endeavor Air. Paying his good fortunes forward is one way he is giving back to a group of students who might not have been as lucky.
This story begins with a routine shopping trip for Pete and his wife, Denise, at the Twelve Oaks Mall in Novi, Michigan. The two were strolling the halls and enjoying the afternoon when Pete noticed a countdown clock in the window of a store – Merit, a trendy urban clothing store. Tick. Tick. The seconds counted down below a sign that read, “Every 26 seconds, a student in America drops out of high school.” Tick. Tick. The Popovich’s knew they needed to take action.
“I’d never been in the store, didn’t even know anything about the Merit brand, but felt compelled to do something,” Popovich said. “I grabbed the business card for the executive director, and within a few minutes, was on the phone with her and started the volunteer process.”
Popovich signed on to become a Business Professional Mentor with Merit’s FATE Program, where he was assigned to work with students from the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy (JRLA) in Detroit. The JRLA is a tuition-free public charter school that provides the educational equivalent of higher-end private institutions for students from impoverished communities. Merit’s FATE Program blends industry with institution, real-world mentors with underserved mentees. The combination has delivered near perfect results.
According to the FATE website: In 2012, 22 ninth grade students were selected to participate. Four years later, 100 percent of the initial FATE students graduated in four years and received college acceptance. Incredible statistics from a community where more than 20 percent of all fail to graduate.
“I was fortunate to have a great, stable support system growing up. That’s not always the case for these kids,” added Popovich. “The goal of this program is to stay involved and help these kids stay on track. We help the kids learn how to be professionals – we talk about financial planning, teambuilding, and developing critical thinking skills. We help them realize that anything is possible if they set their minds right.”
Popovich is currently mentoring 27 ninth graders at the JRLA. While none have expressed an interest in aviation – “Trust me, they all know I’m a pilot” – many have demonstrated untapped potential which inspires Popovich to use like a mound of clay.
“We’re trying to help these students think about their futures. One kid mentioned he wanted to be a doctor, but really loves to cook. The next time I saw him, he said he wanted to become an engineer. I told him, ‘I don’t know many doctor-chef-engineers, so let’s figure out what you love and focus on that’.”
It’s the unexpected discoveries nestled in the minds of these young men and women that keeps Popovich coming back for more. Merit’s FATE Program asks volunteers to pledge at least a year’s worth of energy in the students. Pete is already planning on what’s possible next year.
“I tell these kids that they’ve got one life to live,” Popovich concluded. “I respect the people who choose to take the easy path. But the ones who set a goal very high, take the difficult road to achieve it…when they reach it, that’s what makes it all worth it. Something as simple as coming out a few times a month, if I can help one – or, ideally, many – realize they can do whatever they want to do in their life, then pay it forward, that’s what life is all about.”
To learn more about Merit’s FATE Program, click here or visit GiveMerit.org/pages/fate.