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.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on February 01, 2012

So many of us dream of having it all, and then there's Jennifer Lopez.

A plum TV gig as a judge on FOX's American Idol? Check. Recording success, with more than 55 million records sold? Check. Plus a movie career, a clothing line, endorsement deals, a production company, two beautiful children, and a glowing presence that belies any sleep deprivation. It's enough to make the rest of us pull the covers over our heads in the morning and accept defeat.

Yet Lopez, 42, insists that everyone has the capacity for great achievements. In her new role as the first female spokesperson for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America in its 152-year history, Lopez reminds people that "Jenny From the Block," as she once dubbed herself in song, is from a hardscrabble stretch in New York City's South Bronx. In the halls of her local Boys & Girls Club, Kips Bay, Lopez found a mentor who recognized and encouraged her love of music and dance.

Boys & Girls Clubs of America ( aims to put children on the right track and, against the odds, keep them there. "I'm honored to be an alumna from such a wonderful and celebrated organization," says Lopez, who works alongside actor Denzel Washington, a spokesman for the club for two decades. Like him, she aims to inspire the 4 million kids who show up daily at one of the 4,000 national clubhouses, where they play sports, take classes, eat healthy meals, and engage with mentors and peers in a nurturing environment. "I hope I can give back just a small amount of the encouragement and support I experienced in my young adult years at the Boys & Girls Club. It empowered me, and that's a gift I would like to continue giving," Lopez says. "If I encourage one boy or girl to believe, then I have succeeded."

The Boys & Girls Clubs' Mission

The Boys & Girls Clubs boasts other famous alumni in sports and entertainment, including Kerry Washington, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal, Usher, Ashanti, and Martin Sheen. Even those who don't go on to fame have a head start on success: Ninety percent of club members graduate from high school, compared with the national average of 74%, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

"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 clubs’ president and CEO, Roxanne Spillett. "Our vision is that every child who walks in our doors graduates from high school with a plan for the future. Our motto is 'Great futures start here,' and Jennifer is a beautiful example of that."

As the clubs' new voice, Lopez says she encourages children to embrace "empowerment, determination, and passion. Those are the ingredients to fulfilling your dreams." Even more crucial? Learning to take care of yourself, the earlier the better, she says. "No matter how busy or how demanding your life is, you need to ensure you are both physically and mentally fit," says Lopez, who credits plenty of sleep and taking time "just to breathe and clear my mind" for her own sense of feeling centered. Then, and only then, she says, "can you be the best at what you are doing at the moment, working or even being a mother."

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."

Highs and Lows of JLo's Career

Lopez knows that the path to achieving those dreams can be rocky sometimes. Take last year, certainly one of emotional upheaval for her. She and singer Marc Anthony, father of their 4-year-old twins, Max and Emme, are in the process of getting divorced -- a private episode played out in the tabloids. But Lopez believes hard times can be just as important as success. "Life is a series of ups and downs," she says, and "if you have the self-esteem to get through the downs -- standing on your own and understanding that the present is not the future -- getting up and brushing off will make the ups that much better."

Lopez's professional life has never been more exciting. She stars in two upcoming movies, May's dramedy What to Expect When You're Expecting opposite Cameron Diaz, and the fall thriller Parker with Jason Statham. "Acting is one of my first loves and is incredibly inspiring," she says.

On the television front, in addition to Idol, Lopez is both executive producer and host of the FOX show ¡Q'Viva! The Chosen, which spots promising talent in Latin America. "It's been a profoundly rewarding experience for me," she says. "We have found some incredible singers, dancers, and performers, and hopefully this show will change some of their lives. That feels good."

The Maribel Foundation

Equally gratifying is her charity work: Lopez and her sister Lynda started The Maribel Foundation, which connects doctors with underserved communities. The first clinic opened in Puerto Rico last year, and another will start soon in Panama. "It's such a personal love project for me and Lynda," says Lopez. "When we became parents and our kids would be sick, we started thinking how lucky we are that it was possible to take care of them with good health care. There are so many parents in the world who do not have the same opportunity."

Parenthood, Lopez says, is her most important motivation. "My life is entirely different since Emme and Max have come into it. There is no greater love than being a mother. There is love, and then there is love." Despite her other commitments, "my kids and family come first," she insists. "As Emme and Max grow up, I want to share all of their experiences. They won't happen twice. Balance is a challenge sometimes, but staying focused on priorities is practical. This is not all about me."

These days, her favorite activity is walking in the park with her children. "To see what they see and hear what they say brings me so much joy." And she is beginning to pass on to her twins the most important lessons she has learned. "If I could teach them anything, it would be to love yourself," she says, before adding, "And don't be so hard on yourself. Life is generous with second chances."

How to Be an Adult Role Model

Adult role models are crucial to a child's emotional development and well-being. "We have the important task of teaching children to grow up to be good citizens of the world," says Bonnie Maslin, PhD, a psychologist and author of Picking Your Battles: Winning Strategies for Raising Well-Behaved Kids. "Life is a team sport, and you want them to be really good members of the team." Maslin offers a few tips for parents:

Be consistent. "You don't need to punch a time clock or be Mother Teresa, but children need a sense of rhythm and predictability. It gives them a feeling of calm and internal organization, which are at the core of personal success," says Maslin. Whether you promise a child an hour a week for a certain activity or your family three weekly dinners, make it a priority.

Apologize when you let them down. "There's no shame in saying you're sorry, and that teaches children they can discover a better way to approach something later," she says.

Teach them to reach out. "The best antidote to bullying is friendship," Maslin says. "Teach a child how to be a good friend and also how to extend helping hands to strangers."

Be an available source. "Let them talk about whatever they want with their friends. But make sure you are the one giving them the information about important subjects," she advises.

Don't just give respect -- ask for it. "Respect is a two-way street, and I think we lose track of that," says Maslin. "It's important to teach children that you are a person just as they are. Otherwise, life is like bumper cars, and we're just crashing into each other."

How JLo Keeps Her Glow

Lopez is famous for her glow (also the name of her signature perfume), but it's not all about access to the best makeup artists. "Beauty comes from inside," says Lopez. "It's been said many times, but I believe it's the truth." She offers tips for being your own radiant best:

Take time for yourself. "When you look good, you feel good. When you feel good, you are a better person and parent," Lopez says. Finding "me" time doesn't require a week at a spa. When Lopez has a moment, "I just breathe and clear my mind. Sometimes we just have to do nothing, just breathe."

Let whimsy be your stylist. "In terms of style, I encourage other women to first be comfortable but have fun," she says. "Life is meant to be fun!"

Surround yourself with people who make you laugh. "When I am with my girlfriends, sisters, and cousins, we just say and do ridiculous and silly things. We are Puerto Ricans with a lot of energy. Sometimes it gets loud!" Lopez says.

Take to your bed. "Sometimes we get caught up in what we need to do next and forget about what are the very essential and important things in life," the singer says. "I treasure my time to sleep. It's just as important as eating or exercise."

Care for all aspects of your well-being. "I believe life is a balance of mind, body, and soul," Lopez says. "As I journey through my life experience, I have a better understanding of how true this really is. When your life is balanced, you are happy and excel in everything."

Show Sources


Roxanne Spillett, president and CEO, Boys and Girls Clubs of America.

Frank Sanchez, vice president, Boys and Girls Clubs of America. 

Harold Maldonado, senior director of program development, Kips Bay Boys and Girls Club.

Bonnie Maslin, PhD, psychologist; author of Picking Your Battles: Winning Strategies for Raising Well-Behaved Kids, St. Martin's Griffin, 2004.

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