President Obama recognizes alumnus Leon Dixon for his community service
Inner-city Detroit native Leon Dixon is a man of action. When he decided to help the homeless, he started collecting blankets for nonprofit organizations to distribute; when he didn't like the results, he immediately changed course. "I noticed that the blankets weren't getting to the people who needed them the most," recalls Dixon, who has a bachelor's in management and an MBA from University of Phoenix.
Now, Dixon drives around with his two young daughters delivering blankets directly to people on the street, something he's done for the past 10 years.
"Volunteering has been a part of my life forever," says Dixon, who recently received President Obama's Gold Level Volunteer Service Award for his dedication to serving those less fortunate than himself. Dixon has also received a Community Service Award from University of Phoenix. "My parents always taught me to be a man to others, so what I do just comes naturally."
Dixon, who is working toward a doctoral degree in management, says the "do-gooder bug" bit him when he was a teenager: After he spent a summer cleaning up the polluted Rouge River, he volunteered as a runner at the United Negro College Fund telethon.
I noticed that the blankets weren’t getting to the people who needed them the most.
"Remember the people on the telephone handing notes to guys who would run the numbers down, so they could be posted on the cash board?" Dixon asks. "That was me at 18, running back and forth."
As he got older, Dixon started volunteering in soup kitchens and began leveraging his experience to create some of his own programs. "There was a lot of violence in Detroit during the 1990s," Dixon says, adding that children were being killed by handguns and other weapons.
Again, Dixon took action. He spent money out of his own pocket and formed a partnership with the local police department. "The church was a neutral drop-off zone," he says. "It was a 'no questions asked, turn in the guns,' and we would pay in cash."
Today, Dixon spends his days helping a population of underserved teenagers as the dean of students at Cristo Rey High School in Detroit, "being, for lack of a better word, Dad to a lot of kids," he says. "A lot of our girls and boys don't have a father in the home, so I end up filling that void some of the time."
With a day that begins at the crack of dawn and sometimes doesn't end until 4 am, Dixon says he and his wife sometimes laugh about the fact that he never stops working.
So, after 35 years of service, what keeps him going? "Probably the fact that I've had some hard times myself," says Dixon, who suffered his own home foreclosure during the economic downturn.
"I've been through a lot, but I keep trying to bounce back and blossom again," he says. "I get discouraged like everybody else, but there's something telling me, it's going to get better. And it always does."