WARREN - The goal of Inspiring Minds, an organization dedicated to bettering the lives of underrepresented youths in Warren, is to eliminate excuses and road blocks to success, and Saturday, that mission was celebrated.
"You have so many different opportunities; no matter where you come from or what your skin color is," Deryck Toles, founder and executive director of Inspiring Minds, said. "I believe that you can accomplish whatever you want to accomplish if you work hard."
The eighth annual gala was held Saturday as alumni of the program returned and the next generation of students celebrated a program that has made an impact on the youth of Warren.
At the event, Michael Parks and Choniece Phillips, seniors at Warren G. Harding High School, stood before of a crowd of more than 500 area community and business leaders and were awarded with scholarships to further their education.
Parks, who will be attending Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C., in the fall, said that he did not know where he would be without the opportunities afforded to him through Inspiring Minds.
"With Inspiring Minds, it's like I have another mom or dad," Parks said. "I want to run my own business one day, and Inspiring Minds was able to help me intern with AVI Foodsystems and see what it takes to run a business. They also taught me how important it was to visit colleges and set goals.
"Inspiring Minds just showed me that I could do a lot of things that I thought I couldn't do."
Phillips, a former Tribune Chronicle 20 Under Twenty award winner, is the salutatorian of her senior class at Harding with a 4.2 GPA, and will be attending Duquesne University in the fall and will be pursuing a career in pharmacy.
The event was hosted by two Inspiring Minds alums in Shawna' King and Marvin Louis Logan Jr. King, 21, is currently studying electrical engineering at Alabama A&M University, while Logan Jr., 20, is attending Kent State University and is a member of the university's track and field program, as well as 2014 student body president.
Toles, a 1999 Warren G. Harding graduate and Penn State football standout, was just embarking on a career in the National Football League before a career-ending injury forced him to change course.
That course brought Toles back to Warren, where he said he saw an opportunity to "pay it forward" and help open doors for the young people of the city.
"When I was going through the rehab process, I wrote down on a note pad all the negative things in my life, and I wrote down all the things I'd been blessed to experience on the other side," Toles said. "When I looked at it, I thought about how I was blessed to be able to take advantage of all the opportunities I had in my life.
"I was not born with a silver spoon and I'm not close to the best athlete to come from Warren, but I just worked hard and took advantage of my opportunities," Toles added. "So I started thinking about all of the programs that I wished I could have taken advantage of when I was a young person."
Since founding Inspiring Minds in 2006, Toles' organization has sponsored after-school programs, diversion programs and job skills training programs. In addition, he has taken students on exposure trips to places like New York City, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Puerto Rico.
This summer, the organization will host its third annual summer enrichment program. Offered at no-cost, the six-week, all-day program offers continuing education and athletic programs, as well as field trips and introductions to college and careers to students in 3rd through 8th grade.