Ann Arbor – Karan Higdon took a different approach when he spoke to kids who participated in the Michigan football Youth Impact Program (YIP) during the summer of 2016.
Instead of standing above the large group of seated kids, he sat down on the ground in front of them and shared his story.
That experience triggered something in Higdon, a running back hoping to play a large role this fall for the Wolverines. He and former Michigan defensive back Wayne Lyons started Empire for the Youth (EFTY) this summer to provide after-school programming for at-risk students from elementary-school age through senior year in high school.
“I grew up always wanting to give back but I didn’t necessarily know how, and then once I took part in YIP and realized what they were doing, I knew that was something I wanted to get involved in for a much longer duration,” Higdon told The Detroit News. “I figured, why not start now? I’m on a platform at the University of Michigan. All the resources are here. Everything I need, so why not start now?”
Lyons, now a graduate student at Michigan in social work, dropped by YIP last summer and he and Higdon created their non-profit. It has been time-consuming for both of them – Higdon worked on it while going through summer conditioning and workouts – but it has become a passion.
“The youth is our future,” Higdon said. “They can build their own empire and find their own pathways with our help and guidance.”
Their program (EmpirefortheYouth.com) is in its infancy, but they have met with schools in Ypsilanti and Detroit.
Higdon started EFTY through the Barger Leadership Institute (BLI), a student-run, faculty-guided program in Michigan’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts. He said the BLI helped shape his vision and develop a format.
He spoke to Lyons about the idea and the two began regularly meeting to study demographics of Detroit and Ypsilanti to determine where they want to launch EFTY programs. They offer mentoring and tutoring, life-skills training and career workshops.
“I just want them to gain exposure I feel I wish I had growing up, which is why we do things like career workshops,” Higdon said of what he wants the kids to gain. “We bring in kids from the University of Michigan who are part of different clubs and know different things about certain careers that may not be highlighted and have them do demos for the kids and show them what this career field consists of, and then from that have the kids do projects based off what they’ve learned. Kind of opening their eyes to what’s out there in the world and things they can look forward to other than the popular things such as being doctors and lawyers.
“The life-skills part kind of correlates with the mentor aspect of it. We want them to feel like they have someone to talk to and relate to outside of their home, but we also want to be a support for whatever their parents have established and help guide them and show them different things that may help them be successful throughout life.”
Higdon hopes to become a nurse anesthetist and this summer had internships in Seattle and in metro Detroit to closely study the field.
And while that is his future after football, he loves the immediate response he receives from kids he helps. He also has discovered, as he did that day last summer when he spoke to the kids literally from ground level, that he has a way to relate to them.
“Once I introduce myself and we tell our story and our purpose, they really do understand,” Higdon said. “And considering we’re young, kids take that into consideration and find a relatable interest in that. I was a kid. It’s not like I haven’t been through things, especially in the environments I was in. No kid is completely innocent. Knowing that and realizing that and acknowledging that and being able to share my path with these kids, ‘Hey look, these are things I did, but this is how I recovered. Look at me now.’
“I may not know exactly what this kid may have gone through, but I went through something similar, and they hear that and are like, whoa. I can talk to them about something like that. They can relate. Maybe they may not feel that way on the first day, but as they continue to get to know me and see the type of personality I have, they open up. It’s pretty cool.”
Higdon said he and Lyons were given the gifts of strong mothers who established discipline and rules.
“To see where we ended up and the type of young men we’ve become, it’s amazing to know we can pass that knowledge to someone else,” Higdon said. “You don’t understand until you see the results. Growing up I would have never seen myself going to the University of Michigan and here I am now.
“I know the amount of yellings and punishments it took me to get here. When I look back, I look at the life lessons that deviated me from the paths some of my friends took. It’s like, that was the difference – the family support I had. We really want to push and encourage parental involvement.”
Higdon is competing to play a major role in Michigan’s run game this fall and has impressed his teammates.
Quarterback John O’Korn last week said Higdon has “a burst like nobody’s ever seen.”
And while Higdon wants to succeed at football, he also is focused on helping at-risk youths. He is continuing to devote time to EFTY even during season, calling it “manageable and completely worth it.” After all, he said, he thrives working under pressure.
“At the end of the day, there are similar situations anywhere you go,” he said. “There’s a hood everywhere. There’s poverty everywhere. Single moms, singles dads, death, whatever it is, it’s everywhere. It’s across the board (racially). Everyone can get help from this in some capacity regardless if they’re poor, rich, black, white, whatever.
“One of the biggest things we want them to understand is you don’t have to be an athlete to be successful. At such a young age so many kids have that mindset. It’s like, no – school first, athlete second. You’ll be 10 times more successful if you think about it that way.”