The mentees are being tested. The mentor offers guidance and reassurance in his testimony.
New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram Jr. knows how it feels to have a parent who's incarcerated. Mark Ingram Sr., a former NFL receiver and Super Bowl champion with the Giants, was sentenced in 2008 to seven years in prison and up to five years of probation for money laundering and fraud, and when he failed to turn himself in on time, he was sentenced to an additional two years for jumping bail. He was released from custody in 2015.
So Mark Jr. easily identifies with his target audience. His willingness to do so earned the highest award given by the Volunteers of America – the 2018 Ballington and Maud Booth Award.
"Mark Ingram turned his personal childhood experience into a motivating factor," said VOA president and CEO Mike Young, "and now gives back to children who are in the same situation."
The Booth award is named for the founders of VOA, who promised to "go wherever we are needed and do whatever comes to hand." VOA presents the award annually to individuals who demonstrate distinguished service to humanity.
"It's very close to my heart," said Ingram, who established the Mark Ingram Foundation in his rookie season. Ingram is second all-time for New Orleans in rushing yards (5,362) and rushing touchdowns (44), 735 yards and six rushing touchdowns behind Deuce McAllister in each category. Ingram will miss the first four games of this season due to a league suspension.
"When I first entered the league, there were so many different causes that guys dealt with, so many different issues that guys tried to directly involve themselves with as far as their foundations or who they want to be affiliated with," he said. "I just wanted to do something different, something that was very important to me, something that I had experienced. I started looking into the numbers of children with incarcerated parents; the numbers were astounding to me.
"My father was in prison and I know how that can affect somebody, their mind. I know that just because you have a parent that's incarcerated, you're more likely to end up there as opposed to your peers.
"That's something that I wanted to get heavily involved with and be an advocate for, and let these kids know that just because their parent made some mistakes and they're incarcerated, doesn't mean that they don't love you, doesn't mean that you can't have a great relationship with them, doesn't mean that you have to go the same route. You can use it as fuel to better yourself and catapult yourself to the next level of whatever you want to accomplish."
Ingram was an all-state high school player in Michigan, and won the Heisman Trophy at Alabama in 2009. He said his father's incarceration was difficult for the family.
"We had to move to Michigan and we had a lot of help from family members and friends that loved us and cared for us," Ingram said. "You always want your parent to be there for you and when he was gone, it was difficult. But he always told me not to let it bother me, not to let it affect my mind-set, and that he loved me, he loved every one of us, and I had to be the man of the house and take care of my sisters and be there for my mother and help her out.
"It was difficult but we fought through it. God was good to us, we were able to persevere through the adversity. Now, our family is reunited and we're happy and God is blessing us. And we're thankful for that."
Ingram said the honor was unexpected, but is highly regarded.
"Never once have I done it to draw attention to myself," he said. "It's just the genuineness in my heart that wants to give back to people and help people out, and wants to help people who are in my situation. I know how they feel, I know how it can affect their lives, how people look at them when they go to school, how people talk about their parent.
"Just to be able to give back to that group of people, somebody that I can relate to, it means a lot. With the Volunteers of America, as much work as they do, for me to win their highest award is very humbling. I'm grateful for it, I don't do it for the recognition. It's one of the awards that I'm most proud of because it's not something I did athletically, it's something I did as a humanitarian. Something that's out of the goodness of my heart. I want to see people succeed. God has blessed me in many ways and for me to be able to be a blessing to others, that makes me excited."
Ingram said his solid relationship with Mark Sr. helps him advise kids who face a similar circumstance.
"I just try to inform them that your father or your mother – sometimes, both of them in some cases – might be gone, but you don't have to let that make you do bad in school or do bad things to other people or bad things in the community," he said. "My dad told me that he made enough mistakes that I shouldn't have to make any.
"So I just try to let them know that just because their parent is gone, just because their parent is incarcerated and got in some trouble, that they don't have to follow that same path. They can use it as motivation to do better, as motivation to make their parents proud, as motivation to make their family proud and overcome the adversity.
"I let them know that my father was gone and I still love my Dad more than anything. I didn't let it prevent me from accomplishing my goals. My father helped me every single step of the way, always talked to me every single step of the way. I just let them know that whatever you want to do, you can accomplish it. You don't have to take the wrong route, you don't have to feel bad or anything like that. You just use it as motivation. Use it as a positive way to catapult yourself to success."