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Jennifer Lopez and Her New Leading Role to Help Kids

Working with Boys & Girls Clubs, the superstar and 'Idol' judge gives back to those who helped her as a teen.

Jennifer Lopez's Teen Years at the Boys & Girls Club

Speaking of mothers, it was Lopez's mom, kindergarten teacher Guadalupe, who brought the then-14-year-old and her two sisters, Lynda and Leslie, to the Kips Bay club in 1983 when it opened to girls. The timing couldn't have been better: Boys & Girls Clubs alumnus and Ballet Hispanico dancer Larry Maldonado had just begun a performing arts program, recruiting colleagues to come to the South Bronx and teach everything from salsa to ballet.

"Jen was immediately one of the more active members of our dance program," remembers Harold Maldonado Jr. -- brother of Larry (now deceased) -- who these days runs the Kips Bay club. "Every day she would say how much she looked forward to being with Larry to take dance classes, and she was always involved in teaching the younger students. One day, Larry said, 'Jen is going to make it,' and I said, 'All the kids are going to make it.' He said, 'Yes, but there's something special about her. She shows that certain potential.' She was very motivated."

"This was the first time in my life I realized anything was possible," Lopez recalls of her years at the club. "The adults provided encouragement and so did my other friends there. I credit their hard work and dedication for instilling in me the drive to achieve and the determination to do my best with everything I do." Not to mention the self-discipline that is at the heart of her success. "Dancing taught me that," she says. "Rehearsing, even when I didn't want to."

Others noticed, too. "We had a track across the street and she would jog there, and I would run alongside her," says Boys & Girls Clubs VP Frank Sanchez, Jr. The former director of Kips Bay's physical education department, he now works with Lopez in her role as spokeswoman. "She was always incredibly focused and driven. The Jennifer you see now is the same one you saw at the club."

Her emotional connection to her local club kept her coming back even after she scored her first break as a Fly Girl dancer on the television series In Living Color, which aired from 1990 to 1994. And she clearly took the things she learned at Kips Bay to heart. Says Maldonado, "Every time I see Jennifer, in a commercial or a movie or a concert, I see a little bit of Larry in [her], and that makes me say, 'Wow.' He had such an impact on her life."

Adds Sanchez: "When I hear her on American Idol, talking about young people's careers, that's her being Larry Maldonado. That's how he raised her. It's how he critiqued hundreds of boys and girls" -- kindly, and with words of praise that Lopez embraces still.

"I don't feel like I'm a 'judge,' per se," Lopez says of her role on Idol. "I prefer that I'm a mirror of encouragement. I understand each one has a special dream, just like I have. I see myself in many of these contestants."

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