Matthew McConaughey has helped 10,000 at-risk youths in inner-city high schools turn their lives around with his just keep livin Foundation, which he started in 2008. “You get them while they still have the incentive to change,” says the Oscar-winning actor. “There’s a chance to redirect their lives in a positive way.”

McConaughey, who is receiving the Creative Conscience Award at unite4:humanity for his philanthropy, says he’s focused on areas where 75% live below the poverty level. “Many of these kids come from single-parent homes. Half aren’t graduating high school and their attendance sucks.”

Often asked to lend his name, McConaughey acknowledges the plethora of worthy causes, explaining he wanted to work with kids. “We landed on high school, the last stop before adulthood. After that, you’re on your own.”

Currently, 2,400 students participate in after-school programs based on exercise, nutrition, teamwork, community service and gratitude. Cities include Los Angeles, Dallas, Austin, New Orleans and Washington, D.C., with San Antonio, Texas, the latest addition. “We want to give them hope, a reason to get out of bed in the morning. They’ve got somewhere to go.”

With more than 15 million adolescents left unsupervised after school, when students are most likely to engage in high-risk behaviors like crime and drug use, the twice-weekly program provides a safe haven for kids during that crucial period of the day. “We didn’t even anticipate we were offering that,” admits McConaughey. “It’s a place to improve their lives and we’re right there helping them do it.”

The proof is in the pudding: 99% of the students involved have improved grades and 96% have improved school attendance. Included is a fitness-nutrition program. “We get them to change a few small habits,” he says.
And the students must pay it forward. “We’re saying ‘you’re accountable, let’s get you out into the community and start giving back.’ ”

Community service efforts include beach cleanups, aiding food banks and sending care packages to the troops.
McConaughey puts on two annual fund-raising events in Texas and Louisiana, with plans for a Los Angeles event later this year. With an annual budget of $1 million, JKL partnered with pro quarterback Drew Brees in New Orleans, as well as the Washington Redskins, Texas Rangers and the San Antonio Spurs to help cover the annual $30,000 cost per school in their respective areas.

“Gratitude is the icing on the cake in my mind,” says McConaughey. “The more you’re thankful for, the more you’re going to create in your life to be thankful for.”