by Jim Gehman
“Growing up as a kid I always said if I was able to get out of the inner-city in New Orleans, I wanted to come back and help kids get a chance to advance,” said Royal, who played eight years the NFL with Washington, Buffalo and Cleveland. “It was actually a typical football camp the very first year. We happened to partner up with the Boys & Girls Club and they brought some girls, so we added a cheer portion to it.”
After a few years, the camp evolved into the Robert Royal Foundation, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to help raise awareness and tackle childhood obesity by promoting education, fitness and overall health in schools and communities.
That in turn led Royal and his wife, Toneka, a former longtime fitness competitor who has authored a book on nutrition, to start a program called P.H.I.T. Kidz, which stands for Physical Health Innovative Training. They combined P.H.I.T. Kidz with the football/cheer camp and began calling it the Robert Royal Foundation Wellness Weekend.
“We were able to get a lot of those kids that typically wanted to play Xbox or just sit inside to do creative things,” Royal said. “Whether that was potato sack racing, tug-of-wars, dance competitions, zoomba, pilates, yoga. We found all kinds of cool ways to incorporate it with the young girls and boys to actually get out there and get motivated.
“(And we added) ACT and SAT scoring for the parents that are there to understand some of the literature for the kids that may be getting scholarships, some of the language they’ll need to know going into college. We even brought some dentists in to talk about the gum disease, the importance of gum health and dental health. So, over the years we’ve added different vendors to come in and try to bring awareness to the whole wellness aspect of living.”
They also began community outreach and job skills programs.
“What we try to do is make it important for kids to understand the goal is ultimately – as we continue to raise money to bring those programs to light – to make sure they understand that there are multiple ways that you can be successful in life. You don’t have to pick up a ball; you don’t have to sing or dance in order to be a productive citizen in life,” Royal said.
“Hard work trade skills that you typically don’t see now in the younger generation, whether that’s being a welder or whether that’s being an engineer, we’re just trying to bring that back to a kid’s mindset. And to understand that it’s OK to have those jobs and that you still can be productive and still have a lot of success and be able to provide for your family and do all the things that you want to do.”
While the foundation, now in its 12th year, continues to concentrate on New Orleans, it is looking to expand to Washington, DC and northern Virginia. Having assisted hundreds over the years, what does it feel like when Royal sees he’s making a difference in someone’s life?
“It’s almost like that feeling you get when you’re working your butt off from pee wee ball to high school ball to college, and finally you have a chance to get drafted in any professional sport,” he said. “The fulfillment you get out of all the hard work you’ve been putting in and to actually see some of the fruits of your labor come to fruition, and seeing the joy on other’s faces whether it’s a kid, a young teen or an adult, to be able to have a positive impact on their life, it’s like hitting the lottery for me to be honest.
“There isn’t anything you can give me that will equate to the feeling that you get from being able to service someone else. That’s the thing that keeps me going in life. I think I was put on this earth for that purpose. And so that’s some of the things that I always try to do just to make sure that me as a human being continue to feel whole.”