Baldwin Wallace University
Sparkt Bridges

7 Years After He Dropped Out, His Graduation Inspires The Kids He Now Mentors

When his own mentor said "you've got to finish what you started," he did. How he accomplished it will move you.

This story is part of a bi-weekly series that celebrates people who are reaching across a divide to "build bridges" with those different from themselves. The Sparkt Bridges series is made possible with the support of UPMC.

When I first met Richard Starr I knew immediately: he's a great guy! From his beaming smile and friendly handshake to his can-do attitude and boundless enthusiasm, it's no surprise that the kids in his neighborhood in a rough part of Cleveland look up to him.

Starr's an even stronger role model now that he's achieved his dream of graduating from college, the first in his immediate family and one of the few people in his neighborhood to earn a post-secondary degree.

Starr (top) grew up in inner-city Cleveland, second oldest of six children raised by a single mom.Richard Starr

Starr's graduation in December with a business degree from Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, OH was the result of a nearly decade-long struggle, punctuated by family and personal challenges that forced him to drop out at the start of his junior year. His mentor at the Boys & Girls Club of Cleveland finally convinced him to go back and finish his degree seven years later, telling Starr he needed demonstrate to the kids he's now mentoring what it looks like to finish what you've started.

The fact that Starr even went to college in the first place was a stretch, accomplished with the help of his mentor, Boys & Girls Club CEO Ron Soeder. It started well. He even played on the BW Yellow Jackets football team. But things started to crumble when Starr's mother was laid off. He moved back home and worked two jobs, including at the Boys & Girls Club, commuting every day to classes in between. It was a grueling schedule. Then at the start of his junior year, a childhood friend was murdered. It was the last straw. Starr dropped out.

Starr now runs programs for the Boys & Girls Club of Cleveland, where he spent most of his childhood.BGC of Northeastern Ohio & Cleveland/Facebook

Once again the Boys & Girls Club came to the rescue. Starr poured himself into this work there, eventually earning a promotion to director of the King Kennedy Club where he grew up, and taking responsibility for the BGC athletic program. Now he's director of their new Teen Center at East Tech High School.

With mentor Ron Soeder at Baldwin Wallace graduation.Ron Soeder
Still, Soeder wouldn't let up on Starr finishing college. "He told me, 'now it's time to break the cycle'," said Starr. "Coming from a neighborhood where people don't go get post-secondary degrees or even graduate high school, you need to say 'this is the bar'."

On graduation day Starr had his own cheering section filled not only with family and former mentors, but the kids from his Club, who now call him "Pops," the same nickname he uses with Soeder.

The back of Starr's mortar board had a message meant to inspire others, including the children he is now mentoring.

As Starr climbed the stairs to the stage to receive his diploma, those boys and girls from the neighborhood, his "babies" as he calls them, could see the back of his mortar board and the special message meant to inspire them to achieve their potential too.

It said, "From the trenches & beyond."

The Sparkt Bridges Project is produced with the generous support of UPMC. Life Changing Medicine.

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