John Amanchukwu is the baby of his family — and also the biggest.
At six feet, six inches tall and 280 pounds, he made a habit of sacking quarterbacks during his career for North Carolina State University’s football program. The grit and determination needed for John’s success on the field laid the groundwork for his new calling: providing intellectual, moral, and spiritual training for the leaders of tomorrow.
Since 2010, John has served as Executive Director of Upper Room Christian Academy, a private religious school in southeast Raleigh, North Carolina, that has served the community since 2001.
The Academy is a much-needed alternative to public schools in the area that routinely fail young people. Close to 40 percent of the Academy’s students would qualify for free and reduced-price lunch in public schools, and many of them hail from single-parent homes.
At the young age of 26, John took on the challenge of leading the Academy. Though new to the education arena, he wasn’t intimidated by the assignment. He saw it as a personal mission from God.
“What you’ll find with my story is that I’ve had God’s grace and favor on my life. I attribute that to a major part of my success,” John said.
John’s story began with the humblest of origins. When he was only 5 years-old, his mother decided to leave their home in Elizabeth City and move three hours west to Raleigh.
“She packed us up inside a black Thunderbird with a bright red interior,” John recalls. “She only had $100 to her name.”
I didn’t view football ever as being the end all for my existence. That was just a part of who I was at the time. There were greater things inside of me that I could perform and do.—John Amanchukwu
His mother took a job in janitorial services at N.C. State. While she worked there, they stayed at the Raleigh Rescue Mission’s shelter for six months until they could locate other housing. Eventually, they would help to build their own home as a part of the Habitat for Humanity program.
John couldn’t have imagined that just a decade later, he would graduate from the same university where his mother served on the maintenance staff.
His path to success in football was paved in high school when he transferred from the local public school to a private Catholic academy, Cardinal Gibbons High School. John benefited from a scholarship that paid his $8,000 annual tuition. The faculty also took an individual interest in John and his family.
“Every month, the principal at the time would call me into his office, open his wallet, and give me lunch money so that I could eat,” John said. “At Christmas time and Thanksgiving, they would send me home with food.”
More than football
After graduating from Cardinal Gibbons, John secured a football scholarship to St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh. Although he was grateful for the opportunity offered him, he felt that his NFL aspirations would be better served at N.C. State. Giving up the scholarship to try-out at NCSU was a gamble, but John decided it was the best move.
In 2003, he transferred to N.C. State. After participating in the try-out as a walk-on, the university awarded him a full scholarship to play football.
Around that same time, he met the young lady who would one day become his wife — Crystal. He also recommitted to his Christian faith. Although he enjoyed football, his life wasn’t consumed by it.
“I didn’t view football ever as being the end all for my existence,” he said. “That was just a part of who I was at the time. There were greater things inside of me that I could perform and do.”
Leading the Academy
Shortly after graduating with a degree in sports management, he married Crystal and went into sales. In 2009, he had a chance to join the team at Upper Room Christian Academy as their Development Director. He took the post, and in short order was promoted to Executive Director. His life hasn’t been the same since.
It was important to John to help make an already “good thing” better. Since coming on board, John has successfully established the “URCA Fund” — which to date has raised over $500,000 in additional funds for the school. He revamped the meal program, which made tens of thousands of dollars spent annually on food available to be redirected to programming and other areas of the school.
He also played an integral role in the integration of Direct Instruction and Classical Christian Education into the school’s thriving academic programs, giving great attention to the area of professional development and training for the staff.
John’s chief obstacle as executive director is creating public awareness about the benefits of a private education. “Taking the awareness and translating it into dollars — that’s the challenge we face,” he said. His two dreams for the future: Create a scholarship fund for needy families and a donation fund to finance special projects like science labs.
John recently faced a hurdle when financial constraints prompted the Academy to close its middle school and high school. Upper Room still offers pre-school and elementary grades. The decision impacted 38 students.
In the meantime, John is working to raise support for the school from philanthropic sources because the academy often operates at a loss per student so that less fortunate families may attend. He wants other underprivileged children to have the same opportunities that he had.
“I don’t know if my life would’ve been the same if it weren’t for the opportunities afforded to me by the generosity of others,” John said. “I want to pay it forward.”
The John William Pope Foundation has donated $20,000 to Upper Room Christian Academy. To learn more about the Pope Foundation’s support for education, click here.