When Kids Unlimited leader Tom Cole was studying sociology and psychology at Missouri State University, he needed "to fulfill certain criteria" by performing community service.

When Kids Unlimited leader Tom Cole was studying sociology and psychology at Missouri State University, he needed "to fulfill certain criteria" by performing community service.

That college requirement wound up changing his life — and by extension has changed life for hundreds of local young people, their families and Southern Oregon in general.

Cole, 41, had an epiphany that "was both gratifying and challenging" when he met the disadvantaged youths he was assigned to assist, he said.

"Those kids were desperate for as many things as they could get from me," Cole said. "I could either walk away from it and be done. Or I could cultivate those relationships. I realized it could be the start of something big, really by just caring. And I just felt like, from that point on, life had a different purpose."

Cole, who worked with the Boys & Girls Clubs in Missouri, moved to the Rogue Valley in 1995 — tasked with the mission to start the first club in Jackson County.

"What it was, and what it is now is completely different. We started it in a Quonset hut," Cole said, grinning.

Cole resigned from the organization in 1997, deciding instead to stretch his wings and create a less corporate model.

"I had an incubator of an idea of launching the VIBES program," Cole said.

VIBES (Vitality In Becoming Educated Socially) focused on providing community services and preventing teen pregnancy. Teen dances and after-school homework programs were hallmarks of the organization. Cole hoped the new program would resonate with middle-school and high-school students.

"We knew the merit of our goals," Cole said. "But the big challenge was how do we get these kids to believe in education? We gave reading and math assignments to every single child in the program. We tracked report cards and daily attendance."

Seventeen first-graders started in the Kids Unlimited program in 1998. All of them were the first in their respective families to graduate from high school. Fourteen of them have gone on to college, Cole said.

"We provided a surrogate family environment in Kids Unlimited," Cole said. "We believed in every kid. And we always believe that planting those seeds early is paramount."

Started as an after-school program at Oak Grove Elementary, Kids Unlimited has grown to six sites and operates with an annual budget of more than $1.5 million.

"We created Kids Unlimited with $500," Cole said.

Scratch Cole's soul and you'll find a passionate man, dedicated to helping kids, said Stephanie Johnson-Klug, a founding member of the Kids Unlimited board of directors and former Washington Elementary School principal.

"Tom was a young 20-something when he started the after-school program," she said. "He was so enthusiastic and had a vision."

When Cole came to Johnson-Klug's school, there was no money, no budget, she said. Eighty-five to 90 percent of the children attending Washington were living at or below the poverty level, Johnson-Klug said.

"He has always been so focused on wanting to operate the very best quality education for kids in poverty," she said. "He's watched over the kids like they were his own children."

Cole can look back and know his work in creating after-school programs, summer camps and teen activities has benefitted thousands of area youths.

"My staff volunteered to help with homework and lessons. I remember him getting sprinklers and putting them out in the field for the kids to run through," she said. "Now those kids are getting college degrees and coming back as counselors."

Sports programs have provided a hook to help many of the kids find a positive outlet for their energy, and a sense of belonging. Requiring them to maintain their grades in order to participate has kept hundreds in school and on track.

In 2012, Cole coached the South Medford girls basketball team to the Class 6A state title in Portland, the team's first state title, and took them back to the state title game in 2013.

Most inspiring to Cole was the fact that his 2012 team had the highest GPA of any team in Oregon. In a serious moment at the community celebration, Cole spoke of the diverse backgrounds of his players, some of the challenges they overcame to have opportunities to play, how they've succeeded academically and have found time to volunteer at Kids Unlimited, where many of them learned to play.

"All of those girls, every single kid, has gone on to college," Cole said, adding one of the Latina team members graduated high school with "a full-ride basketball scholarship."

"She's the first in the history of the state," Cole said. "And I remember her getting her first basketball."

Rocia Mendoza, 25, never played basketball. But she is now a registered nurse, a feat she attributes to getting involved in Kids Unlimited at age 16.

"I kind of just made him my mentor. I didn't even ask," Mendoza said.

Mendoza walked into Cole's office and proceeded to seek advice for everything from senior projects to family issues, she said.

"He reached out to my entire family," Mendoza said, adding her younger sisters got involved with the programs.

Mendoza recently agreed to serve as a director on the Kids Unlimited board.

"Tom is a huge part of the community," Mendoza said. "Being on the board of directors is exciting. But it is never going to pay him back for what he did for me and my family."

Cole is now coming full circle with the Boys & Girls Club. Kids Unlimited is picking up the slack for White City kids after the organization shuttered its facility in the poverty-stricken area.

"But this is not about a certain type of kid," Cole said. "All kids need and deserve equal opportunity."

Cole credits early supporters such as Hank Collins, former Jackson County Health Department director, for believing in the Kids Unlimited mission. Cole said he and Collins used to treat children for lice with Rid shampoo together.

"This is the director of the health department, washing kids' hair," Cole said.

And Sherm and Wanda Olsrud helped create the new gym where "kids from every background play together every week," Cole said.

"That list of people who see the value of our work continues to grow," Cole said.

So does Cole's vision, his supporters say.

A Kids Unlimited charter school application submitted to the Medford School District has been deemed complete. The new charter school, VIBES, will serve primarily at-risk students in grades K-8 at Kids Unlimited, 821 N. Riverside Ave., and in an adjacent building. Some of the school's goals are to provide longer school days, a longer school year and more family involvement.

"I never wanted to be removed from contact with the kids," Cole said. "When leadership is removed, it's hard to have the passion and the connection."

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or sspecht@mailtribune.com.