SEI board member Keith Jackson, left, and Executive Director Tony Hopson.
When Keith Jackson attended a weeklong basketball camp 25 years ago, little did he know it would change his life.
The 15-year-old didn't become a great sports star, but while he was learning the fundamentals of basketball, he also explored the fundamentals of being a productive citizen.
"We talked about family, drugs, alcohol, books, education — it was unbelievable," Jackson said. "Even back then when we were snotty-nosed chaps on the track at Whitaker School, Tony (Hopson) and Ray (O'Leary) were having us lay back, look up in the sky and imagine the (SEI) center."
That basketball camp was the beginning of Self Enhancement Inc., and one of the camp's leaders was Tony Hopson, SEI's founder and executive director. The 62,000-square-foot Center for Self Enhancement opened in 1977 at 3920 N. Kerby Ave. following a $10 million fund-raising drive.
On Sunday, Aug. 13, from 1 to 6 p.m. Self Enhancement Inc. will celebrate 25 years of helping thousands of children, from grade school through college, become contributing, educated citizens. Most are African American and most are from inner North and Northeast Portland, including Jackson, 40, who grew up to become vice president of Albina Community Bank and now owns his own commercial brokerage firm.
The secret to SEI's success — 98 percent of SEI students graduate from high school and 80 percent go on to college — is individual attention and love, said Jackson, who has been an SEI counselor and is on the SEI board.
"Students learn they are a product of love, and SEI extends that model every day," he said. "When a child can come to the center and interact in activities and discussions and feel love and that someone is concerned for that individual's life, it's incredible."
Consistent mentoring also is key to influencing children to walk the path leading to success, he said.
"SEI is a positive vehicle to lean on. It instills in kids what they need. Once they experience that, they'll be searching for it their entire lives and will align themselves with people who can give it."
More than 2,500 kids are served by SEI each year. About 700 come from 12 North-Northeast Portland schools; 90 percent of those are recommended by teachers and administrators who see problems with the students' attendance, behavior and academics and have recommended them to SEI. Another 10 percent are recommended because they show leadership potential. The brothers and sisters of those recommended to SEI also are mentored by SEI counselors.
At least 400 students attend after-school activities at the center and 900 more students participate in Schools Uniting Neighborhoods activities at Jefferson High, Ockley Green and Tubman schools. Those activities are coordinated by SEI. About 400 students from throughout Multnomah County also are helped through a contract with the county.
SEI's philosophy is simple: "We believe all kids can learn. We believe all kids have a gift. We believe all kids should be safe," Hopson said.
"We have built a facility to keep kids safe. We provide them options and opportunities with the hope of helping them find their gift."
Children from affluent families usually have resources to help a child who is failing. But for the low-income child who falls, no safety net exists, Hopson said.
"SEI catches them, dusts them off and puts them back in place," he explained.
Recently selected by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation as one of the top 22 youth-service organizations in the country, SEI received $250,000 to go toward its $8.8 million operating budget and assistance in developing a business plan that could lead to a larger investment by the foundation.
As SEI focuses on slow but steady and successful growth in the children it serves, the organization itself also purposely tries not to grow quickly.
"I've learned over the past 25 years that the key for me is relationships and focus," Hopson said. "We have to focus on what our mission is: building strong individuals.
"A lot of programs change based on whatever money is available. What we are doing now is what we started doing."
The Portland-born Hopson, 52, played in the very park where the SEI center stands now. His mother still lives only four blocks away. He understands the pressures local children face. His undergraduate degrees in sociology and psychology are from Willamette University. His teaching and counseling certificates are from Portland State University.
But when it comes to politics, the street-wise kid from Northeast Portland said his strategy is to "be honest and tell the truth."
"SEI was born out of need in the community, and we have never apologized for serving that need," Hopson said. "We didn't allow ourselves to be bought by any entity — not the school district, the city not the county."
Only 34 percent of the center's budget comes from government resources; the rest is raised through community resources: corporations; foundations; individual donations; and events, including the popular "Art & Soul" auction in September.
"To support SEI is no longer giving to a charity; it is investing in our city," Hopson said. "If we're not successful, this city can't be successful. If kids don't stay in school and be valuable citizens, then Portland won't be that loveable, livable city we like it to be."
In the next 25 years, Hopson hopes to see the program replicated, as it has been in Miami, Fla. A push to create a $20 million endowment for SEI already is under way.
"Our biggest accomplishment is that thousands of children and families have been touched by SEI," Hopson said. "They are better because they have become part of Self Enhancement Inc."
Andre Lawrence, 25, who has been an SEI member since he was 8, said the organization "has been everything for me."
"It was my security blanket," he said. "I was going the other way in high school, and it helped guide me into being a good leader, not a bad leader. In college, it helped me stay, strive and keep going. It's so easy to quit."
Now, Andre is an SEI counselor, mentoring students at Jefferson High School.
"I always say if I had another chance, I'd do it differently," Lawrence said. "Now I can do that with other kids. I want to be their security blanket."