Tyler Perry didn’t plan to donate $100,000.
He planned to take a half day off from his busy schedule as a movie producer in Atlanta and give the keynote speech at the 25th annual 5000 Role Models of Excellence scholarship program, an organization that provides mentorship and support to at-risk young men.
“But I looked at your faces coming down the aisle and I got emotional,” he told the packed crowd of hundreds at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day scholarship breakfast, held at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Miami Airport & Convention Center. “When I saw your faces I thought, I gotta get in on this.”
He was encouraged to speak at the event by South Florida Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, who founded the program in 1993, when he sent flowers to her office following her high-profile argument with President Donald Trump after the death of Miami Gardens Sgt. La David Johnson. Johnson was a graduate of the 5000 Role Models program and a family friend of Wilson’s.
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On Jan. 2, the 5000 Role Models group awarded Johnson’s pregnant wife and two children a scholarship trust with $800,000 they had crowdfunded to pay for the children’s education.
Wilson, dressed in a white fur version of her trademark cowboy hat, told the audience that she called Perry to thank him personally for the flowers, “and, while I had him on the phone…”
After some convincing, Perry agreed to come speak at the event, and he said he was glad he did, as well as inspired enough to write the $100,000 check from his seat on stage.
“Every time I see a young black man I think of my son,” he said. “He’s 3. He’s the love of my life.”
Perry talked about a recent walk on the beach with his toddler son. He was walking slightly ahead of him when he heard jumping behind him. He turned around and his son announced that he was following in his Dad’s footsteps. Perry told him that instead of jumping to meet his father’s stride, he should hold his hand and walk beside him. At the end of the walk Perry turned and pointed.
“Look at your footprints,” he told his son. “You left your own path.”
That was his message to this year’s class of 58 Wilson scholars, who wore the 5000 Role Models uniform of a black suit, white shirt and red tie with black handprints on it. At one point in the ceremony, volunteers slipped one of the signature ties over Perry’s head as he was sworn in as an honorary role model. Perry was also given the key to Miami Gardens and the key to Miami-Dade County.
Also honored at the breakfast were the group’s role models — known as “peddlers of hope” — who gave the 2018 class of mentees gold medallions to symbolize the “endless journey into manhood.”
Some of the graduates of the program were in attendance as well, including Frantz Paul, a 19-year-old studying computer science at Florida International University. He said the program, as well as the Jose Milton Foundation STEM Scholarship he received, helped him on his path to a career he’s excited about.
But what initially drew him to the program as a young high school student was much simpler.
“I wanted to wear the tie,” he said.