Charles: I never anticipated being nominated for the Walter Payton Man of the Year. Shoot, from Oakland, California, to Boise State to Chicago, being a seventh-round pick who was barely on the roster. I had to reinvent my career and coming to Washington, it was never something I expected.
I'm not the type of person who wants to be in the spotlight. I'm not flashy. I'm none of that. So, being nominated, it's great for my organization, but for Charles Leno Jr., it's a lot for me.
I know who I am, and I know what I'm about. And for me, that is showing people there is more to being an athlete than what people see, and there are other ways they can have an impact.
I remember when the idea for my foundation first started to take form. It started with an idea I had while talking with one of my friends about getting kids involved with athletics. As someone who grew up in Oakland, I know what a lot of kids think that means.
They look at it as if they can just be an athlete or a musician, and that's the only way that they can make their lives better. But there are so many things beyond the athlete that people don't look at. There are GMs, athletic trainers, agents and so many other things that make up the athlete.
I wanted to start a non-profit that helped people think that way, because it also represents who I am. I did a lot of community work in Chicago, and I was the ambassador for the Special Olympics. That's where I got the love and the passion for it, so the nonprofit needed to be a representation of me and my background.
Jen: Being the person I am when he said he wanted to start this organization, I took it and ran with it. At the time, though, we didn't know if we were quite ready for everything we needed to do to get it off the ground, and the agreement was that we could start this, but if we were going to do it, it needed to be done the right way. We didn't want to just outsource it for someone else to run it.
So, I ended up going back to school and getting my Master's in non-profit management. I worked with Make-A-Wish for a while. I volunteered with a bunch of different organizations and learned the business side of how a non-profit worked.
And of course, we would like to hire a staff at some point, but from the time we started this journey, it has been Charles and I handling everything.
Charles: We could have easily hired some company to do this, but I love the fact that my wife put that challenge on herself so that we could make this business our own. When you have a business partner, you want to be able to trust them. You want to be able to rely on them, know that the work they're going to put in and they're going to be giving their all.
There's been no better person to have than my wife through all this. I married her for all the things that she's doing for our nonprofit, but just the person she is, I know how committed she is to giving back to the community just like I am.
I know how hard she works, and the icing on the cake is going to school for this so we don't have to rely on someone else.
“Beyond the Entertainer” is like one of our kids. We're grooming it the way we want it to be. There is nobody making our organization grow but us. It's our commitment to the cause to pay it forward and give back to the community. I live by the golden rule of treating others the way you want to be treated. It's always been about others for us, and that's what it will continue to be about. If we continue that, then the sky's the limit for our organization.
Jen: Like Charles said, this business is like our baby, and we have put so much time and effort into growing it that now others are starting to get involved. The first year of our Leno Claus program was mostly us making donations, but with help from coaches, teammates and others we raised $95,000, which helped us adopt 14 families.
We did this together. This has been a project of ours over the last three years, and watching it grow and seeing the potential of the organization has been awesome.
Charles: For us, it's all about the impact that we're able to make. The smiles, the tears, the happiness, the joy, the shared love that we get and give to the other families and organizations that we've been working with. There's no price that goes along with that. There's nothing out there that makes me happier than seeing a family or seeing a kid or seeing an organization just be really thankful and blessed for us and what we've done for them.
We don't just want to donate the money and host these events and then just be like, "All right, see ya." We want to continue working with people and continue to talk to them and make sure they're doing well and still have the spotlight on them. We want them to understand that they're a resource for others. And with our platform, we love to give back and show that we are willing to help.
And there are plenty of ways that we do that, like the event we hosted earlier this season when we brought out some athletes from the Special Olympics to come to the facility and show them the day in the life of an NFL player and work with other people in different departments. It worked as a tester for our mentorship program that we plan on starting up soon because they were able to interview people like myself on top of our nutritionist, strength and conditioning coaches and assistant coaches to learned how they help us as athletes. It was a really fun event, and I know we got a lot of big smiles on their faces, too.
But we've also been working with multiple families what had unexpected deaths, whether it was through illness, car accidents, whatever it may be. That was definitely emotional for me, because I know exactly what they felt, because one of my friends and former teammate, Greg Najee-Grimes, was shot and killed in Sacramento, California, last year. It's very hard to go through those times, and I know I needed someone to help me through that. I know they needed somebody, too, and that was our moment of sharing those stories and healing together.
Jen: This organization has allowed us to show people that there's more to the athlete than what we see. It all comes back to paying it forward, and that can be something as easy as holding a door open for somebody. I just think letting people know that a little bit goes a long way. That's where it all starts, and I think if we all paid it forward in this world, I think we'd be much happier.
Charles: I'm a child of God, and God has blessed me with me with so many amazing people in my life to help push me and help me keep me grounded. That's what it's all about. It's about being true to who you are.
"Beyond the Entertainer" has always been about paying it forward, as we get ready for the next part of that journey, I'm excited about the new ways we will be able to do that.
Thank you to everyone who has taken their time to vote for me as this year's Walter Payton Man of the Year. I have felt all the love you have shown me, and I truly appreciate it.