Rashon Bennett began imagining a law career in middle school.
But he had never met a lawyer until Lloyd Freeman became his mentor two years ago.
Bennett, valedictorian of Camden High's Class of 2012, left his hometown last week to start his freshman year at Seton Hall University. Freeman, a litigator at Archer & Greiner, couldn't be prouder.
"Rashon is a one-of-a-kind student. He didn't need a lot of hand-holding," says Freeman, 30, who lives with his wife, Ebony, in Sicklerville.
I'm at his firm's Haddonfield headquarters, where mentor and mentee first met, in 2010. Bennett was a shy Camden junior applying for a "Beautillion" scholarship from the Burlington-Camden Alumni Chapter of the Kappas, a national, historically African American, fraternal organization.
Under Freeman's leadership, the 50-member chapter inaugurated the program to provide $500 scholarships to male high school students in South Jersey of any race. The students also participate in college-preparation workshops and cultural activities - including waltz lessons.
The lessons are handled by a choreographer; the Kappas, most of whom are professionals, do the mentoring. So far, 36 young men have participated in the program, which culminates in a formal dance. All have gone on to college.
"The Beautillion benefited me a lot," says the gentlemanly Bennett, who speaks softly and, at 6-foot-7, towers over Freeman (who, like a visiting columnist, is about 5-foot-10).
"My mentor came from the same background I do," adds Bennett, 18. "He's a young African American raised in a single-parent home. And he's what I want to be."
Freeman grew up in Kansas City, Kan., where his mother worked in the claims department of an insurance company. Like Bennett, who was first inspired by the character of the judge in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Freeman's first conception of lawyers was formed by TV.
"The only ones I knew were on Law & Order," Freeman recalls. "There weren't any in my family. I didn't have a whole lot of guidance."
Freeman graduated from Howard University and earned a law degree from the Rutgers School of Law-Camden in 2007. He received assistance through the Archer & Greiner Diversity Scholarship, which was established at Rutgers-Camden in 1999.
Three scholarships of $5,000 each are awarded to first-year law students at Rutgers; recipients also are offered a summer associate's position after completing their second year. Archer & Greiner added a second law school - Temple University - this year.
Freeman mentors students in the diversity scholarship program as well as students at Howard.
"I've made myself available to most any student who is focused on attaining higher education," he says.
"Lloyd takes [mentoring] to the next level," says Christopher R. Gibson, Archer & Greiner's president.
"There is just no substitute for the kind of training and insight you get from having a mentor guide you along," Gibson says. "I'm sitting in the chair [once occupied by] my own mentor. I'm the lawyer I am today, the president of the firm today, in large part because of mentoring."
Freeman observes that getting to know "a group of professional men who look like them" helps Bennett and other Beautillion scholars recognize "that their dreams can actually be attainable."
Only 5 when his father died, Bennett was raised, along with two siblings, by his mother and grandmother. He is grateful to them and to his mentor.
"He's provided me with opportunities he didn't have when he was at my age," says Bennett, who continues to lean on Freeman for all sorts of advice.
Including what to wear to a newspaper interview. He sports a crisp white shirt and (unlike the columnist) a tie.
"I've also suggested that Rashon remember what he's received," Freeman says. "Once he's in a position to give back to another young guy from Camden High who wants to be an attorney, Rashon can reach out to him."