Voices of Florida. Made possible through the generous support of the Gidel Family Foundation.

Greg Francis: Reaching Out

“When better is possible, good is not good enough”

Greg Francis remembers clearly when his path diverged from that of the neighborhood friends he grew up with in a working class area of Orlando.

“In junior high school, many of my friends began shoplifting small things — wrenches, screwdrivers, reflectors for their bicycles,” Francis recalls. “I thought there were bigger things in life. I didn’t want to focus on screwdrivers. I wanted to focus on the future.”

Today, Francis, 43, is a high-profile attorney, partner and shareholder in Morgan and Morgan, one of the most active personal injury law firms in the nation.

Francis’ best friend from boyhood? He’s serving life if prison for killing someone. That, in a nutshell, is the difference mentoring can make in the life of a child.

Francis has benefited from the life experience of many mentors, both formal and informal. His first and most powerful mentor was his grandfather, a retired dockworker with a strong sense of integrity. “He taught me what a man is — that men do what they say they are going to do, and take care of their families,” Francis says.

His parents also made a huge impression, particularly his mother. Her advice, which he now passes along when he addresses kids: “Dare to be different. Always do more than is expected,” he says. “When better is possible, good is not good enough.”

It would be great if all kids had such powerful role models. But Francis recognizes that in today’s world, that’s not always possible. Whether due to the daily struggle of dealing with today’s economics, the high prevalence on single-parent homes, the deterioration of communities or other factors, kids are often left to sink or swim on their own.

That’s why Francis is a supporter organized mentoring programs, and why he endorses the Children Movement of Florida’s stance that investing in these partnerships could have a huge impact.

“All kids start out in kindergarten believing they can be anything they want to be — they can be football players, doctors, lawyers,” says Francis, who has two young children of his own. “But as kids get older we start stratifying them. ‘This one’s not that smart, or that one’s not that talented.’ We put limitations on them, and they stop believing. There need to be good programs and services for them so they don’t lose hope.” Florida once was the national leader in mentoring, creating more than 200,000 relationships through the Governor’s Mentoring Initiative launched in 1999 by Gov. Jeb Bush. Although both the public and private sectors embraced the effort, funding has dried up in recent years. The Children’s Movement would like to see $15 million go to organizations that promote mentoring such as Boys and Girls Club of Florida, Best Buddies, Big Brothers-Big Sisters, Teen Trendsetters, Take Stock in Children and the YMCA.

For his part, Francis is a supporter of the Orlando chapter of 100 Black Men in America. The program identifies African American males as they begin high school in ninth grade and supports them with a four-year process of personal growth, exploration, and even college scholarships. “It does change the trajectory of these kids’ lives. For many of these kids, not only don’t they have a family member who went to college, they don’t have anyone in their community who went to college,” Francis says.

While he wholeheartedly supports his organization’s mission, he wishes the kids could be reached before they hit ninth grade — another reason he supports the Children’s Movements efforts for a bigger state investment in mentoring.

“It seems to me the most important time to reach a child is at a much earlier age — elementary or middle school. It feels like that at the point when we could have an even greater impact in changing the trajectory of a kid’s life.

“A lot of kids we deal with in high school are already on the right track. They just need direction to help them stay there and to advance. But how many kids didn’t make it that far? Who knows how many we lost along the way?”

If anyone knows how powerful good mentors are, it’s Francis. And he’d like children to know that if they keep working they can be as successful as he is. “We don’t need to lose these kids,” Francis says. “We should be telling them, ‘Your current situation, if it is a bad one, is not a life sentence.’”