Avi Hopkins understands the value of a good coach. You don’t have to be a blowhard who gets in a kid’s face, as he learned from his high-school wrestling coach, Gary Hicks, who’s now a Henrico County Circuit Court judge.
“I consider myself a pretty good wrestler,” Hopkins says. But the soft-spoken Hicks took him to a new level by inspiring him to learn more moves: “He really pushed me.”
Hopkins relishes the position of underdog, lettering all four years in football at Virginia Military Institute despite people saying he was too small to play. “I seek out challenges,” he says. “I like to figure out the hard stuff.”
Hopkins grew up in Mechanicsville. His parents worked for the Richmond Public Schools and often took in boys who were having a difficult time at home. With his background as a multi-sport coach and player, as well as his Christian faith, Hopkins is a natural fit at U-Turn Sports Performance Academy, where he started volunteering 10 years ago.
Each week, 75 to 100 teens come through the doors of the academy, which combines athletic training and competition with Christian counseling and mentoring. Hopkins, who started working there full-time in 2006 as director of operations, was named executive director last year.
“He’s what I’d call the ultimate servant leader,” says Hopkins’ predecessor, Robert Dortch Jr. “He started as a volunteer coach, and because of his passion and his energy, he’s had the ability to move people and inspire people. He does that by example.”
Hopkins and Dortch changed the organization’s funding model in response to the 2008 financial meltdown, which closed the doors of many nonprofits. Instead of relying mainly on donors, U-Turn now offers programs that earn revenue. Hopkins’ broad network in Richmond has helped the new model succeed, Dortch adds.
Hopkins also has coached the Calhoun Cougars football team in Gilpin Court and serves on the board of Hilliard House, which takes in homeless women and children.
After becoming involved with U-Turn, Hopkins learned that it was founded in part because of his cousin’s drug-fueled killing in 1992. U-Turn cofounder Paul Manning also knew Corey Vaughan, who was one of his childhood neighbors, and his death — of which two of Manning’s former basketball teammates were convicted — was a catalyst for U-Turn’s launch to support young people through character development and leadership training.
Learning U-Turn’s history “really deepened my connection to the organization,” Hopkins says. “I really fell in love with it.”