Jon Bon Jovi wrote "Runaway," the song that launched his rock-star career, in 1980 as he rode a bus in Manhattan past homeless young runaways near Covenant House, the national organization that aids unmoored youth.
"It could have been me," Bon Jovi told an audience at a fund-raiser for Covenant House Pennsylvania more than 30 years later. "But something else saved me. It was that song."
A staple of radio and the concert stage for decades, Bon Jovi, 52, is also a philanthropist who will be the 2014 recipient of Philadelphia's Marian Anderson Award at the Kimmel Center on Tuesday.
The award, whose past recipients include Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey, and Sidney Poitier, honors artists who are also humanitarians. It is named after Anderson, an African American native of Philadelphia born in 1897 who was renowned for her singing voice as well as her advocacy for civil and human rights.
Bon Jovi lives in Middletown, N.J., but spends significant time helping the homeless and impoverished in Philadelphia and Camden, among other places.
The singer's work within the region figured into the calculus of his being chosen for the award.
"We wanted to single out an artist whose work is not only global, but also deeply invested here in Philadelphia," said Nina Tinari, Anderson Award board chair. "This marks the first time that we have looked at generosity to the city and region as part of our search."
These days, Bon Jovi has the freedom to give full voice to that generosity after decades of laboring in rock and roll with the Grammy Award-winning band that bears his name - a crew that has sold more than 130 million albums and played nearly 3,000 concerts in front of 37.5 million fans.
Also an actor and producer, Bon Jovi has been dedicating more of his energies in recent years to helping others.
"It would have been a life unfulfilled if the 52-year-old was on the same journey that the 21-year-old had been on," Bon Jovi said in a telephone interview last week. "I just have chosen to become more and more involved."
That involvement led him to create the Center City-based Jon Bon Jovi (JBJ) Soul Foundation, established in 2006 to focus on issues of homelessness, affordable housing, and hunger, said Mimi Box, the foundation's executive director and a former chief financial officer of the Philadelphia Eagles. She also served in the same capacity for the Philadelphia Soul, the arena football team that Bon Jovi once co-owned.
"I'm by no means a Mimi Box, God bless her," said Bon Jovi, who grew up in a working-class family untouched by poverty. "But I'm certainly not sitting on the sidelines, either. Our foundation will continue to be a big part of my daily life."
The foundation has provided funding for 400 apartments, shelter beds, and affordable housing units for homeless and low-income people, Box said. It has helped the victims of Hurricane Sandy as well as Hurricane Katrina, and has created homes for people from Georgia to California.
The Soul Foundation also has received a great deal of attention for its JBJ Soul Kitchen in Red Bank, N.J., an eatery friendly to low-income diners. People eat there in exchange for volunteer work in the restaurant, or for a minimum donation.
Bon Jovi told the story of a 12-year-old boy who swept the restaurant floors one day, earning a certificate to return with his family.
"They came dressed in their Sunday best," Bon Jovi said, "and the boy had such pride because he fed his whole family."
In Philadelphia, the foundation is noted for donating more than $2 million to Project HOME, cofounded by Sister Mary Scullion, to aid the city's homeless.
Much of that money underwrote the JBJ Soul Homes, 51 units of affordable housing in Fairmount, Scullion said.
"Jon gets involved," said Scullion, whom Bon Jovi calls his "patron saint." "Oh, my God, he's an amazing human being, so incredibly thoughtful, persistent, and generous."
The story of how Bon Jovi and Scullion formed their alliance - as vibrant a mutual-admiration relationship as could exist between a nun and a rock star - is a well-known tale among advocates:
Up in his Ritz-Carlton hotel room in Center City after a concert one winter night, Bon Jovi saw a homeless man lying on a grate near City Hall.
"What can I do?" Bon Jovi asked himself.
He dispatched a trusted friend to find someone he could partner with to help.
"He came back with the Michael Jordan of the issue," Bon Jovi said.
Scullion said she gets teased for serving Christ by hanging out with a big-time rocker. "People don't believe it," she said, laughing. "It is unusual."
While many celebrities lend their names to worthwhile causes, Bon Jovi "doesn't just plunk money down and disappear; he's consistently engaged," said Laura Otten, director of the Nonprofit Center at La Salle University.
"Among celebrities, there are divas in every crowd," she said, "but his reputation is that he's not a diva at all. He's very much about the philanthropy."
The singer is smart enough not to go it alone, and seeks out "great partners," said Katherina Rosqueta, founding executive director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania.
One partner, Pilar Hogan, director of a Camden neighborhood revitalization group known as St. Joseph's Carpenter Society, said she's constantly surprised by Bon Jovi's commitment. In Camden, he has contributed money to renovate homes for low-income families and has underwritten projects to serve the homeless.
Hogan is also impressed that the rock star asks to meet the people he's helping, away from cameras.
"He has a real interest to make changes in others' lives," Hogan said.
John Ducoff, executive director of Covenant House Pennsylvania, agreed, saying he's seen Bon Jovi quietly encourage young people who have been helped by his agency.
"He meets with kids who've been runaways, homeless, or survivors of human trafficking," Ducoff said. "He gets to know them out of the limelight."
One such person, Takeia Clark, now lives at JBJ Soul Homes after having been homeless in Philadelphia. She is from Paoli, but won't discuss the problems that sent her onto the streets.
"When I'm here at JBJ, I feel safe and stable," said Clark, who now works as a cashier at a North Philadelphia Walmart. "I'm grateful for Jon Bon Jovi, and I would love to help other people like he helped me."
Then Clark, who said she's met with Bon Jovi a couple of times, added with a smile: "He's really nice, but I didn't know he was a rock star," since she's 22 and listens to other music.
Bon Jovi doesn't hold it against her, Clark said.
People like Clark are important to Bon Jovi, Ducoff said, because of those runaways he saw from the bus as he was writing his song when he was just a kid himself.
"He's connected his journey in music - and his first big break - with the journeys those kids were on," Ducoff said. "My sense is what he saw 30 years ago has really resonated with him."