Denzel Washington is famous for his on-screen persona and dashing good looks, but his appearance at the National Press Club on Wednesday wasn’t about promoting his latest movie or theatrical project.

Instead, the renowned actor was in Washington D.C. advocating for youth in his role as a longtime ambassador for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. At 6 years old, he became part of a club in Mount Vernon, New York.

“I am a prime example of the need for a community-based safe haven like Boys and Girls Clubs,” said the star, wearing a dark suit as he addressed a room packed with youngsters, officials, community leaders, and media. “Without the support and mentoring of the club, I’m afraid to think where I would be today. I certainly would not have the life I do now.”

Washington didn’t come to the nation’s capital alone. In the audience were youthful club members, and on the dais were celebrity supporters, namely, LeBron James, singer Ashanti and famed actor/director Ron Howard.

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As cameras clicked and flashed steadily during the star-studded event, one by one the celebs took the podium to talk about their passion for youth, and a desire to reach more of them through the Boys & Girls Clubs.

One method is a new PSA campaign dubbed “Great Futures Start Here,” featuring a soundtrack by Beyoncé.

Howard, who said he “got a personal call from Denzel,” directed the spot last June in Los Angeles with a bevy of stars.

Jennifer Lopez (a national spokesperson along with Washington) Magic Johnson, Cuba Gooding Jr., Kerry Washington, Shaquille O’Neal, and Ne-Yo, are among those who’ve come through the clubs and found success. Also seen in the PSA are big name alumni like Sugar Ray Leonard, Smokey Robinson, Edward James Olmos, CC Sabathia, Martin Sheen, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Courtney Vance, and Shaun White.
“It’s an amazing organization,” said Ashanti, who took part in the PSA and is active with the organization’s character and leadership efforts. The Grammy award-winning singer first performed onstage at a local Boys & Girls club in her native Long Island, New York.
Boys & Girls Clubs of America have been around for more than a century, offering youth a safe space, adult mentorship, fun, friendship and various development programs.
Today, nearly 4,000 clubs serve some 4 million youngsters in cities, towns, public housing and on Native American lands nationwide and U.S. military installations worldwide. The clubs aim to instill academic success, good character and citizenship, and promote healthy lifestyles.

“Boys and Girls Clubs are needed today more than ever,” said Roxanne Spillett, president and CEO of the Atlanta-based organization. “Many children face things you and I couldn’t imagine.”

Indeed, when Nicholas Foley was introduced to the audience as the Boys & Girls Clubs 2011-12 National Youth of the Year, he told a sobering tale. Abandoned by his parents as a toddler, he bounced in and out of different foster care homes.

Foley spoke about the way the club provided him structure and support. He graduated from high school and became the first member of his family to attend college.

Spillett cited low graduation rates nationwide as just one of the critical issues impacting millions of American youth—along with poverty, obesity, juvenile crime and high rates of incarceration.

“This is America. We have to do something about these problems and we have to do something now,” she told the gathering. “This is not only a humanitarian crisis, but an economic crisis.”

James is an avid Boys & Girls Clubs supporter who has raised more than $3 million in funding, and donated computers to clubs around the country.

The NBA All-Star spoke about growing up in the inner city of Akron, Ohio and fearing he might become a “statistic.” Having beaten the odds, he’s now committed to helping youth.
“It means a lot to me to give back to kids,” he said. “We have to make sure we never close the door on their dreams.”