updated 05/21/2014 AT 6:00 PM ET
•originally published 05/22/2014 AT 3:15 PM ET
In 2009, Marquis Taylor was well on his way up the corporate ladder.
The California-raised Stonehill College grad had recently landed a plumb job as a Boston-based real estate investment banker.
“I really enjoyed it,” Taylor, 30, tells PEOPLE, “But I always felt like something was missing.”
So in 2011 he founded the non-profit youth organization Coaching for Change – an after-school mentoring and basketball program that has helped more than 200 youth in and around the low-income community of Brockton, Massachusetts.
For a young man who wanted desperately to avoid those pitfalls, playing basketball during and after-school and on into college was his saving grace.
“I always felt like I had a place with sports,” he says. “If I never played basketball, I probably wouldn t have finished high school.”
It wasn’t until he was traveling for work in the Mississippi Delta in 2009 that he realized the opportunities he d had as a child, though limited, were far better than those available to other low-income kids.
“I saw new levels of poverty,” he says of the trip. “Yes, there were drugs and violence around me growing up, but in the Delta, they had nothing. It changed my whole life.”
Shortly after returning to Boston, Taylor, who was already volunteering as a youth basketball coach, quit his job, decided to pursue a master s degree in education and dedicated himself full-time to the at-risk youth of Brockton s inner city.
“I was terrified,” says Taylor.
He poured all of his savings into starting his non-profit and went from living in a three-story apartment to sleeping on friends’ couches.
It was all worth if when Coaching for Change became a reality.
“My belief has been, if we can teach these young people how to coach, we really can begin impacting how they re doing in school,” he says, “helping them develop job readiness skills, and turn these students into role models.” Throughout the week local college students volunteer to coach and mentor high school students who then coach and mentor elementary-aged students in basketball skills.
“They learn about practice planning, behavior management, problem solving and communicating effectively,” says Taylor.
“It s never really been about athletics,” he says. “It’s more about helping young people develop leadership. If you take kids who don t have a voice and put them in a position of power and allow them to become a role model by coaching other kids, it s really powerful.”
And it s working.
This year 100 percent of the program seniors are on track to graduate, with 85 percent heading to college and the other 15 percent going into the military. Those are strong numbers for a struggling community riddled with gang violence and where 47 percent of adults only have a high school diploma or GED.
Mikea Gilbert plans to be one of those success stories.
“In my hometown I know a few people who were killed or hurt,” says Gilbert, 15, a high school sophomore in the program who hopes to become a social worker one day.
“C4C has taught me how to work with kids that are struggling,” he says. “I want to help get troubled kids off the street.”
For Taylor, hearing kids like Gilbert talk about helping others are worth more than any corporate corner office.
“The best part is watching young people s mindsets change,” he says. “This is my calling.”
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