Sam Collier stands on a plastic chair in the middle of the gym and raises his left arm. “I have a $100 bill in my hand right now,” he says into the microphone, and 450 middle schoolers cheer.
“This isn't for the shy kids—it's not for shy kids,” he says, waving his hand. “I’m going to give this $100 bill to the one who can come down here right now and—the DJ is going to play the next song—and if you can dance the best, you’ll get this bill.”
A stampede of children run toward Collier, some kids pulling their reluctant friends along.
“OK! OK!” Collier can feel the electricity in the room, the kids pressing on all sides of him, “The beat is going to drop! I am looking for the best dancer! When the beat drops, I want you to dance. But listen! I want you to dance, but don’t hurt anyone. Be safe!”
The beat drops so loud the bleachers shiver. But no one is dancing. Small hands reach up to grab at Collier’s chest and neck. With eyes wide, Collier disappears underneath a wave of maroon, yellow, and white polo shirts. The music continues, screams matching its volume. Some children run back to the stands, some pile on top of Collier, who’s now no longer visible. Teachers rush forward, pulling individuals from the pile. One girl is carried away crying.
“Where’s my hat?” Collier’s voice, amplified by the microphone, comes from within the crowd of children and teachers that is now disbanding. “I need my hat!”
With eyes wide, Collier disappears underneath a wave of maroon, yellow, and white polo shirts.
Collier stands in the middle of the gym alone. The chair is gone. The only sound is that of voices buzzing on the bleachers.
“Clap once if you can hear me,” Collier says.
“Clap twice if you can hear me.”
Seeing education as a tool to improve quality of life, Collier runs No Losing, Inc., an organization he started to empower communities. One of his main focuses is the “No C Campaign,” which motivates middle school students to aim for all As and Bs. He spends most of the year visiting impoverished schools, promoting it. “C is average,” he says. “Don’t be average.”
“The worst thing you can do for a kid in poverty is lie about the realities of life. Almost is not enough.”
But Collier has received criticism for this approach. What about the students who can’t get all As and Bs? Given the schools he visits, there will be plenty of boys and girls without the financial and familial support that normally add to students’ performance. What about them?
“Look, I love them as well, but the worst thing you can do for a kid in poverty is lie about the realities of life,” Collier says. “Almost is not enough. You have to hit it. You have to hit it because that reality is going to eventually hit you.”
Along with running his organization, Collier also works for North Point Community Church—Andy Stanley’s ministry in Georgia. Whether Collier is in front of a gym full of students in downtown Atlanta or hosting a service in Gwinnett, it’s hard to ignore him. Enthusiasm—whether about a Six Flags outing for the all-A-and-B students or the church’s summer camp for sixth-graders—emanates from him like light. His raspy laugh starts with an audible oh, as if it’s catching him off-guard, and lasts long enough for those around him—no matter how many—to join in.
He’s constantly aware of his surroundings and, like a chameleon, adjusts to fit in any environment. Though this may not sound like a positive attribute, it contributes to Collier’s effectiveness in the diverse spaces he has chosen to work in.
There may be stark differences between speaking at a youth camp for North Point and holding a pep rally for students in Atlanta, but Collier knows he needs both. Through No Losing, Inc., he is able to give back to the places he came from. Through his involvement in North Point, he gets the mentoring, direction, and connections he needs to keep No Losing going. Churches with the most resources often don’t naturally cross paths with communities in poverty, so Collier works at connecting the two as much as possible.
Voices bounce off the gym walls, creating a wave of shrill sound. In hopes that adding space between friends will decrease the talking, teachers point at individuals to make them change seats. The gym begins to quiet down as students face the center—avoiding eye contact with their teachers, who have begun freely handing out detention slips.
After years of doing this same activity with the $100 bill, Collier tells them, this is the first time he’s been overpowered by a crowd of students at a rally.
“I’m going to point to one student, and I want you to come up here,” Collier says into the mic. “No questions. Don’t hesitate. Come down as soon as I point at you.”
The children whisper from their seats.
Without looking around, Collier points at a boy. “You. Come down here.”
The boy shakes his head. His teacher motions to him but he looks around. Him? No. He stays seated. Collier holds his gaze while the boy tries to disappear.
This is the first time he’s been overpowered by a crowd of students at a rally.
“No. Not you,” Collier tells him.
“You,” he points at a boy a few rows away.
The boy jumps up and walks towards Collier, who drapes his arm around him and faces the crowd. The boy is missing a shoe and a teacher rushes toward him, hands him the shoe, and hurries away. The first student has now made his way to the court too, but Collier motions him away. “No, not you. Him.”
“Who here wants to be successful?” Collier asks, “Raise your hand.”
Hands go up. The boy hops on one foot beside him while Collier turns to scan the gym.
“If you want to be successful, you need to know how to follow instructions. You gotta be ready. I said to be safe earlier. Some of you weren’t ready.” He points to the kid beside him, who has now managed to put his shoe on.
“I asked him to come up and this boy got up right away without making any noise, without hesitating, and without a shoe. He’s ready.”
Collier digs inside his pants pocket, “He gets the $100,” and puts the bill in the boy’s free hand. The bleachers erupt with noise.
“Clap once if you can hear me,” his voice echoes. “Clap twice.”
The first time Collier worked in ministry was as a youth choir director at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s old congregation, Ebenezer Baptist Church. Ten years ago, he showed up early to his first rehearsal. He arranged the black chairs for the choir, imagining the altos on one side and the sopranos, usually a smaller group, on the other. He brought his own sheet music and wondered if some of the members would know how to sight-read. He waited.
A little girl and her mother walked in. The girl sat on a black chair and her mother sat to the side. The girl was an alto. The mother was her ride home.
Waiting for the clock to mark the start time, Collier watched the minutes go by. He let the mom and little girl know he’d wait a little longer for those who were running late. But the minute hand kept moving, and no one else arrived. Collier realized this was his new position: leading a choir made up of one 11-year-old girl.
One week went by, then two, and he still had just a single alto in his choir. But her mother liked his enthusiasm. When she started spreading the word about this new director, the group quickly grew to 25 singers.
One Sunday after church, the youth pastor approached him.
“Do you know who that lady and her daughter are?” he said.
“Yeah, that’s Angela and her daughter Farris,” Collier answered, a little confused.
“That’s Dr. King’s niece!” the pastor said.
Motivated by Angela’s connection to the civil rights leader, Collier began asking her questions about ministry and purpose. Eventually, she became his mentor and encouraged him to speak and preach from different platforms. These conversations led to his work with Atlanta’s public school system, and it was through his involvement there that Andy Stanley noticed him. A mutual friend told the pastor about Collier’s work and they both decided to meet. Collier became a member at North Point Church shortly after that, and now hosts and speaks primarily from the Gwinnett County location.
Their adoption came with a warning: The babies came from a very poor family, and their biological mother and father were addicted to cocaine.
When they were a recently married couple—Lamar Collier on his third marriage, Belinda Minor-Collier on her second—they decided to grow their family. They had just moved from D.C. to Atlanta, where they began attending church, hoping to find a fresh start.
Upon discovering Belinda couldn’t get pregnant, the two decided to adopt. Eventually the process led them to Sam and his twin sister Sara, but their prospect came with a warning: The babies came from a very poor family, and their biological mother and father were addicted to cocaine. Maybe these weren’t the ones they wanted. Dismissing the warning, they brought the children home.
The twins grew up knowing they were adopted. The Colliers spoke about adoption so positively that they once got called in to speak with Sam’s teacher in grade school. The children from his class, convinced they were missing out, had gone home crying to their parents, wishing they too could be adopted.
Collier stands in the center of the gym, the middle schoolers silent. Chins on hands, elbows on knees.
“I don’t get paid to be here,” Collier says, his voice resonating in the wood of the bleachers. “I’m here because there are some people who think that you can’t do it—they say you can’t succeed because of where you live or what you look like.”
He tells them he has a test for them, and some ears perk up.
“If you are ready to succeed, you will stand up without speaking when I count to three.” The kids start to shuffle, laying their feet flat on the bleacher floors. “One. Two. Three.”
And they’re up.
“This is the second step. You won’t wanna do this. I’m going to count to three and I want you to close your eyes. One. Two. Three.”
Some eyes close briefly; others stay closed.
“If you have a friend who is messing with you right now when your eyes are closed, you have to let go of that friend. He or she doesn’t want you to succeed.”
Feet move in the bleachers, restless.
“With your eyes closed, imagine yourself as a successful person. People are going to tell you that you can’t succeed. I don’t believe that. And I’m here to tell you that greatness is available to you. It doesn’t matter what people say about you. I know you can succeed.”
What if his biological mother had kept him? What if there had been no one there to tell him he could have a better future?
Collier understands that no one can earn God’s favor—that our value doesn’t depend on grades or monetary success. But because of his own background, Collier is pragmatic. What if his biological mother had kept him? What if he hadn’t found his way to a loving home? And what if there had been no one there to tell him he could have a better future? In his work, he keeps the children’s harsh realities in the forefront of his mind.
He tells the kids to open their eyes, but most haven’t lasted this long. His time up, he hands the principal the mic and steps away.
More than anything, Collier wants to help others, and that’s his own standard for success. He uses his privileges—being adopted, educated, a good speaker, a good networker—to help those who aren’t as fortunate as he is.
“I’m so embarrassed,” the principal begins. “I hope Sam doesn’t give up on us after that performance.”
Collier often asks himself if he should be doing more—making a new podcast? Writing? Speaking in more places? He’s open to growing and trying new things. But until then, he works on reminding marginalized children they are just as capable and valuable as everyone else. And he pushes them toward something better.
The principal pauses and looks at Collier, who is standing by the DJ. “Are you going to give up on us, Sam?” she asks.
Collier shouts from the sideline. “Never!”
Photography by Ben Rollins