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Paying it Forward: Fence at the Top


Aug. 1, 2018 Professional Athletes Foundation

by Jim Gehman

“I always wanted to get into it, but it never was the right time financially until I retired,” Jackson said. “(While working for the drug store chain) we hired quite a few youths and did programs with them and gave scholarships. I wanted to continue because I was seeing teens come into work and you heard all the problems they went through at home or at school. I always loved working with them and trying to help them. So, I just stepped out of the rat race and into that.

In 2007, one year after retiring, Jackson founded Fence at the Top [FATT], a non-profit comprehensive mentoring program for at-risk youth in Sonoma County, California.

“(The name, FATT), actually came from my pastor,” Jackson said. “In one of his sermons, he said, ‘We build a fence at the top of the hill rather than a hospital at the bottom.’ We do preventive work. We keep kids from sliding down. We try to catch them beforehand so they never have to go through the drugs or the alcohol, all that stuff.”

Working with youth, 9-18, FATT, among other things, offers after-school tutorials, summer events and sports camps. Its goals are to provide the boys and girls with a safe haven, a sense of purpose, and to develop skills that will help them reach their own goals.

“We do college tours,” Jackson said. “We do a right of passage program which takes teens through everything from etiquette to how to balance a checkbook to how to apply for a job to how to get into college, how to stay in college, how to pay for college. We do a lot of things where they can fit in. So, it makes it workable for them.”

Likely because of its reputation of success, kids buy into FATT and what its program can offer them.

“Most of the time if you get the parents to, the kids will,” said Jackson, who is assisted by teachers, families, businesses and former NFL players. “And then in terms of the kids, the main thing that you really want to make sure you do is make sure that the kid has a say so in what’s going on. It’s like me or you. We don’t want to be told what to do or told what we can and can not do, necessarily.

“You want them to understand that there’s right and there’s wrong. I used to do a football camp and we talked about things like perseverance and leadership, all things that come through football. Football is a metaphor for life, so I kind of use it that way for the kids. And a large percent of the kids will have played some type of sport. So, we can keep them involved that way.”

What does Jackson hope the kids will take away from FATT?

“What I really want for them is to learn how to work with people because that’s the basis of life. The No. 1 thing that we profess in our program is education and getting along with people. We also have a bible study, as well. So, we try to make it a well-rounded program.”

PAF’s support of FATT is greatly appreciated by Jackson, and in turn, also by the youths whose lives are affected by the program.

“PAF’s grant keeps us going. We have other people that work with us and help us and fund us as well, but the PAF grant does so much for us just because No. 1, they’re my people [former NFL players] helping us,” Jackson said.

“It’s just like if you worked for IBM or some company like that and IBM chose to help you do something after work to help youth. You really feel great about that. And I do because PAF is football players, professional athletes helping other professional athletes that are out here trying to work with kids and do other things.

“We use the money from there to fund our tutorial program, our bible study and some of the trips that we do. It’s a well-rounded thing and it’s also a whole entire program because we spread the funds around.”

Gene Upshaw Player Assistance Trust Fund

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