Robert Nelkin is a role model of mine and he should be yours too. Robert Nelkin, or Bob, has spent the last 39 years of his life making a difference in my community – your community.

At the tender age of 19, Bob started a program called Project Hope in January of 1970. The program was a once-a-week session that ran approximately for 2 ½ hours in which 25 teenagers (which Bob helped to recruit) became involved with mentally retarded children. Many of the handicapped youngsters were lonely and shunned by so-called normal children, and spent the bulk of their time at home with a parent. What Bob’s program did was create a space where these kids could finally be kids – play games, sing, work puzzles, fly kites, tumble, throw and catch balls, jump on the trampoline, and race. Most important, Bob recognized his program could enable these kids to finally make connections with other kids and the teens, plus provide the child’s parent with a couple of hours of free time.

Young Nelkin’s program was a highflying success: it was replicated throughout the State; many of the former teen volunteers still credit Bob’s program for helping them to go on and become successes in other areas of their life; and the parents and kids got some much needed help. However, Bob didn’t stop there…

Over the next four decades, Bob’s unique “crusade-approach” towards helping his community has resulted in significant positive changes. First, his Healthy Start initiative reduced African-American infant mortality rates by 50% in neighborhoods where implemented. Second, while an advocate for the local chapter of the Association for Retarded Citizens, Bob visited state-licensed private facilities and observed inhumane treatment of mentally disabled people. Bob spoke out and facilities were closed.

So, last week I was not too surprised when Bob took time out of his busy schedule (even when other local nonprofit executives did not) as the president and chief professional officer of the United Way of Allegheny County to speak to nine Robert Morris University undergraduate students in the American Humanics program (the American Humanics program is designed to develop the next generation of nonprofit leaders). After all, that’s just who he is.

Accordingly, Bob did not miss a beat in telling these students that they have every resource available to them that he had back in 1970, when he started Project Hope at the age of 19. For that next hour – mind you, we were only scheduled for 30 minutes of his time – Bob enthralled and inspired the group with his story. He stated that we, as a society, need role models; that every day we have the opportunity to make an impact on people who are in need; that we should challenge ourselves, and those around us, to not settle for mediocrity; that we need to push the boundaries of conventional thinking using research, ingenuity, and good old-fashioned hard work.

Then he started directing his questions to the students, “Well, what about you? How are you going to make an impact?” And then he sat and listened. When one of the students shared a particularly heartbreaking story about the recent death of a close friend, Bob was the first one out of his seat consoling her and offering his handkerchief. After all, that’s just who he is.

Like I said, Bob Nelkin is a role model of mine. How about you?

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