Retired exec teaches kids to persevere

Todd Cohen | Philanthropy Journal | February 2, 2010

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - The slogan "Attitude is everything" is inscribed on Reggie McAfee's business card.

McAfee should know: A child of public housing in Cincinnati, he became a star runner in high school in Ohio and college in North Carolina.

And despite initial doubts by some of his superiors at Xerox, he became the company's top salesman.

Now, he heads a Charlotte-based nonprofit that uses running as a tool for teaching kids to keep on keeping on.

 "If you're used to persevering and setting goals, and if you're committed, you can achieve any goal," says McAfee, chairman and executive director of Cross-Country for Youth. "Those skills transfer to everything in your life."

McAfee launched the nonprofit in 2006 after taking early retirement at Xerox.

Operating with an annual budget of roughly $125,000 and 60 to 70 volunteers, Cross-County for Youth uses cross-country running as a tool to teach kids in elementary and middle school "to live healthy lives with character."

The nonprofit teams with schools, offering a 10-week program each fall for roughly 16 kids per school, with each kid paying $125 to participate.

The kids attend a one-hour practice twice a week run by two volunteer coaches, with each practice following a 30-minute session on character, also led by volunteers.

In just three years, the program has grown from 70 kids the first year to 205 this school year.

And the kids represent a broad demographic group, divided roughly evenly among whites, African Americans and Hispanics, including both at-risk kids and affluent kids.

Scholarships are available, funded with money raised at an annual bowl-a-thon set for April 24 at AMF Carolina Lanes in Matthews.

McAfee aims to expand the model throughout North Carolina.

Rising to challenges is nothing new for him.

In high school, he was Ohio state champion in cross-country two years straight and in the mile and half-mile.

As a sophomore at Brevard College in North Carolina on a scholarship for cross-country and track, he was national junior college champion in cross-country and in the mile and two-mile.

And in 1973, after transferring to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he was the first African-American to break the four-minute mile.

Then, after earning a master's degree in business administration at N.C. Central University in Durham, he went to work in 1980 in Charlotte for Xerox.

After working for several years in finance, he wanted to move to sales, but some of his bosses doubted his abilities.

"People would say, .You don't have enough experience,'" McAfee says.

So he became a technical analyst supporting the sales staff.

He worked his way up the job ladder at Xerox, and in each job exceeded his superior's doubts about his ability to succeed.

"Whatever obstacle or challenge they put forward, I met the challenge every time," he says.

He eventually sold the company's most sophisticated solutions, and, in 1999, was the top Xerox salesman in the U.S.

In 2006, when the company offered him early retirement, he figured it was a perfect time to pursue his dream of giving back by working with kids.

"I did not have a father figure," he says. "But there were so many people who stood in the gap to be that person. I always said, .If I have an opportunity to give back and improve the lives of others, I will.'"

This fall, McAfee hopes to expand the nonprofit's program within a 75-mile radius of Charlotte, and is looking for schools with volunteers who have good character and a passion to work with kids.

"This program is not about being great runners," McAfee says. "It's more about having kids be great people."