BRADENTON, Fla. (AP) — When Neil Phillips' parents left their native Jamaica to come to America, their hope was no different than most immigrants' — that they and their children might find a better life.
"They were really enamored by the American dream," says Phillips, whose radiant smile softens an intimidating 6-foot-4-inch frame. "My parents were eager to provide us with the opportunities to discover who we were."
Now Phillips is doing the same for children born in this land of opportunity, but often without the privileges he enjoyed — a stable home, supportive parents and adequate resources. After stints as a professional basketball player, an entrepreneur and an administrator at an elite private school, the founder of Bradenton's Visible Men Academy has discovered his passion: instilling in young boys of color from at-risk communities the high standards and confidence that will allow them to become "visible" leaders.
"The expectations of boys from this demographic turns at an early age from 'Aren't they cute!' to strife and trouble," says Phillips, 49, who started the all-boys charter school three years ago. "That's what we're trying to combat. We know how much greatness and potential they have."
To look for the source of Phillips' beliefs, you have to go back to his earliest years, growing up with two sisters outside Washington, D.C. in a home where values like selflessness, honesty, integrity and excellence were expected and what mattered most was how you treated people.
"Our's was a home where the currency was kindness," he says. "That's what everything revolved around and I've never forgotten that."
Eager to see if their son was "someone who didn't want to settle for 'fine,'" Phillips' parents enrolled him at Landon, an elite prep school in Bethesda, Maryland, in the eighth grade. He flourished in the rigorous academic environment but like many a gifted young black athlete, his eyes were on the National Basketball Association.
In a move he hoped would get him both an exceptional education and more playing time than he might have in a bigger athletic conference, he accepted an offer to play at Harvard, where he majored in English and American Literature and was on both the football and basketball teams. But the most important lesson he learned there was one that would come in handy later on.
"I realized I could have an opinion that differed from someone who was a genius or had written a book," he says. "I had a voice and I could express with it."
When the NBA didn't draft him after graduation, he signed a contract to play in Australia. A guilty feeling that he should "get a real job" —not from his parents, but entirely self-imposed — led him to quit after a year, something he now regrets.
"Maybe I'd use the word 'mistake' now," he says. "I stopped sooner than I needed to."
He returned to the U.S. and joined a sports marketing firm, where he got a crash course in business — and a wife. (Shannon Rohrer-Phillips, a former social worker, is now Visible Men's family services director.) But after two years, he turned to founding a basketball instruction company for children based on the then-novel idea of individual coaching within a team sport. The concept was a success — a partner still runs One-on-One Basketball today — but Phillips found himself more drawn to the children than the court.
"My bigger interest was in helping them understand how their passion for athletics could contribute to their character development and their success off the court," he says. "That started to command all my attention."
He moved briefly to California to help launch an organization aimed at using youth sports to develop character, then returned to his alma mater, Landon, first as athletic director, then as an administrator. It was there he began to notice a disturbing trend of underachievement among the school's minority students that did not relate to their abilities.
"People are surprised to hear that the evolution of Visible Men started at a place like Landon," he admits. "But it put me in touch with black boys who were so well positioned to succeed and yet were still so insecure and unconfident. I thought, 'If I'm seeing this here, what must it be like beyond this school?'"
Inspired to be "part of the solution," in 2011 the family — which now included sons Reece and Blair — moved to Longboat Key and Phillips took an interim job at the Out of Door Academy for a year. In 2013 they opened Visible Men Academy, with 60 boys, in a space leased from the Community Church of God. Three years later, there are 120 students in kindergarten through fifth grade, a staff of 20, and an empty lot next door that will one day become a permanent home.
The school's name comes from Ralph Ellison's novel "Invisible Man," a favorite of Phillips, in which the young black protagonist goes without a name for the first 100 pages. The school's mission is to make sure these students don't suffer the same fate but instead, "let your light shine," as the school motto says.
Raising the $600,000 annual gap between what the school district contributes and what it costs to run the program and meet state testing requirements has been a struggle. But Phillips has already seen his first priority realized: his students love coming to school, even given their extended day, extended year and challenging academics.
"I have such a deep and abiding belief in what and who these boys can become that is directly counter to all the statistics we read," he says. "To be able to play some role in helping see these boys differently — to see they can become not only good father and husbands, but leaders — means the world to me."