Wed, Dec 28, 2011
Jennifer Lopez's Latest Role: Boys and Girls Clubs
J Lo dives into a project that is near and dear to her Bronx heart.
Before 55 million albums sold, the films, the fashion spreads, the clothing line, the perfume and “American Idol”—yes, before J. Lo was a brand and as much a part of the great American commercial landscape as Disney—Jennifer Lopez was just another skinny dancer from the South Bronx.
Lopez experienced a childhood fraught with the challenges of growing up in the inner city. Raised with her two sisters by her parents, Guadalupe and David, she would go on to become famous as “Jenny from the Block,” thanks to the Kips Bay Boys and Girls Club, where her passion for dance was first encouraged.
That experience led to her breakout as a dancing Fly Girl on the television series “In Living Color” (1991−1993) and a subsequent gig as a backup dancer for Janet Jackson. She scored the starring role in the 1997 biopic “Selena,” for which she earned a Golden Globe nomination. Two years later, her first studio album, “On the 6,” followed, which included the No. 1 single “If You Had My Love.” She never looked back.
Until now. Lopez is giving credit where it’s due as the first female spokesperson for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America (and its Greater Washington chapters) in its 150-year history. Working alongside fellow Club alum Denzel Washington, who has been the Club’s sole spokesperson for two decades, Lopez is dedicated to spreading the word to the public, as well as inspiring the 4 million kids who show up after school at one of the 4,000 national clubhouses to play sports, take classes or simply hang out with mentors and peers in a safe place.
“I hope I can give back even a small amount of the encouragement and support I experienced at the Boys and Girls Club,” says Lopez. “The amount of love and support there really helped me to become stronger and support my dreams. This was the first time in my life I realized anything was possible.”
That the program works is indisputable: Its membership, which includes other famous alums, such as Kerry Washington, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, Usher, Ashanti and Martin Sheen, has a 90 percent high school graduation rate. “We provide a safe place where children can learn and grow with adult mentors who love them and won’t let them fail,” says the Club’s President and CEO Roxanne Spillett, appointed by President George W. Bush to his Council on Service and Civil Participation. “Our motto is ‘Great futures start here,’ and Jennifer Lopez is a perfect example of that. She’s an advocate for what we believe in, which is not only success and a healthy lifestyle, but giving back to the Club, the community and the country.”
Lopez’s achievements are no surprise to those who met the then-14-year-old when, in 1983, she joined the Kips Bay Club’s nascent performing arts program, founded by the late Larry Maldonado of Ballet Hispanico. An alumnus of the Club, Maldonado returned to Kips Bay to teach, bringing along colleagues to introduce the children to ballet, jazz, salsa and modern dance. “Dancing and music are really my first passions,” says Lopez. “Dancing taught me self-discipline.”
“Jen was immediately one of the more active ones in our dance program,” remembers Larry’s brother, Harold Maldonado Jr., who now runs the Kips Bay Club. “Larry once said, ‘One day, Jen is going to make it,’ and I said, ‘All the kids are going to make it,’ and he said, ‘Yes, but she’s going to be somebody.’ She was so motivated.”
“She was always an incredibly focused and driven young lady,” adds Boys and Girls Clubs Vice President Frank Sanchez Jr., who ran the physical education program at Kips Bay when Lopez was there and now works with the star in her role as spokeswoman. “The same Jennifer you see now is the one you saw at the Club. And when you hear her on ‘American Idol’ talking passionately about young people’s careers, that’s her being Larry Maldonado. That’s how he raised her.”
Lopez is certainly doing her mentor proud. In addition to her work for the Boys and Girls Clubs, she and her sister, Lynda, have begun the nonprofit Maribel Foundation, which links medical specialists to patients in underserved areas; the first clinic opened in Puerto Rico last year, with another planned for Panama.
Explains Lopez, “When my sister and I became parents and our kids would get sick, we started thinking about how lucky we are that it was possible for us to take care of them with good health care. The Foundation is such a personal love project.”
Professionally, she’s remaining active on the big screen as well as the small, co-starring opposite Cameron Diaz in this spring’s ensemble dramedy “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” She’s also executive producing and starring in Univision’s “Q’Viva,” discovering new talent in Latin America. “We’ve found some incredible singers, dancers and performers,” says Lopez of the project. “Hopefully this will impact and change some of their lives.”
Which makes her latest starring role as perfect as any in her career. “When she’s talking about issues, she’s isn’t talking from Beverly Hills, but as the young girl raised on Castle Hill Avenue in the South Bronx,” says Sanchez. “Jennifer knows both sides of the train tracks.” F
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