Talking to college freshman Malachi Haynes, it’s clear that participating in the Boys & Girls Club is its own reward; hanging out with Denzel Washington is just the cherry on top. On Tuesday night, the two-time Oscar winner joined Haynes and his five fellow national Youth of the Year nominees at the Boys & Girls Clubs of America annual gala in Washington, D.C.
“It was a magical day and night — just getting to talk to and listen to these young people,” Washington told Yahoo Entertainment on Wednesday morning as he participated in interviews with Youth of the Year winner Haynes. “They give me new energy.”
The nominated teenagers all spent their formative years participating in the Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA), an organization of community centers that provides activities, academic support, and mentorship for at-risk youth. And like longtime spokesman Washington, who grew up attending the BGCA in his New Jersey hometown, these kids were able to realize their ambitions and leadership skills through the clubs. Haynes, for example, started a literacy program at his Denver club, where he helped young African-American kids to substantially increase their reading levels.
“The memory that I carry with me is getting the final scores back: it’s the last week, we’re all eating pizza, and handing the kids back their grade levels before and after,” Haynes tells Yahoo. “Just seeing the big smile on their faces, knowing they’d accomplished their own goals, seeing how far they came. It gave me a sense of accomplishment and hope. And that’s something that I can carry with me for the rest of my life.”
Hope can seem like it’s in short supply these days. But Washington says that in his 26 years visiting Boys & Girls Clubs around the nation, he’s never stopped seeing it.
“I’m impressed and amazed that the kids are still positive,” says the 63-year-old actor. “We cynical older folk tend to think the world’s coming to an end by next Tuesday. But they’re all about changing it and being a positive part of that change. And I’m inspired by that.”
That positivity, says Washington, is a cornerstone of the BGCA. With so many American children growing up in dangerous or unstable environments, the clubs provide a safe place and a reliable group of mentors. This, in turn, gives the participants freedom to imagine a better future — and step outside of their comfort zones. “They support you, and you feel safe,” says Washington. “You feel like it’s a place you can fail.”
Mentorship has always been important to the actor, who loves to reference his own childhood mentor, BGCA staff member Billy Thomas. Even in the cutthroat world of Hollywood, Washington has a reputation for offering guidance. He provided an acting-school scholarship that launched the career of Black Panther’s Chadwick Boseman, and took Moonlight director Barry Jenkins out to a three-hour lunch, where Jenkins described receiving “some of the most amazing advice I’d ever been given.” Does he offer the same advice to BGCA graduates that he does to up-and-coming stars?
“I mean, I don’t know what stars are,” he demurs, “but I just tell people to stay rooted, you know, be honest with yourself, and work hard. There’s no magic pill to success.”
This year, the actor, one of the most-nominated in Oscar history, will presumably be providing a new kind of mentorship: helping his son John David Washington (the breakout star of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman) survive awards season. He already has some advice for John David at the ready: “Man gives the award, God gives the reward. That’s my advice.”
“I’m going to start using that,” says Haynes.
To learn how to volunteer for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, go to BGCA.org.
This article originally appeared on Yahoo.