NEW YORK – Tom Cruise (search) says kids can learn anything with the proper guidance and tools.
The world's biggest movie star showed up with girlfriend Penelope Cruz (search) in New York City this week to be honored by the National Mentoring Partnership (search), an organization that advocates mentoring for kids who need help with learning or who lack direction in their lives.
"For him it's a labor of love," Susan Weinberger, the president of the Mentor Consulting Group of Norwalk, Conn., said of the actor with the megawatt smile. "He gives emotional support, financial support and is really hands on."
Cruise, who grew up with dyslexia, was awarded the organization's "Excellence in Mentoring" award for program leadership. The actor, who is also a commercial airline pilot, producer, business owner and philanthropist, is a founding member of H.E.L.P., the Hollywood Education and Literacy Project (search).
"You have to understand, when I was doing Top Gun, I tried to get my pilot's license, and I couldn't," Cruise said. "Now I'm a commercial pilot. I have three companies, I negotiate contracts, I am able to educate myself in law, or anything that I want to learn, so this is very important."
Cruise produces movies with his partner Paula Wagner (search), and is in post-production on The Last Samurai, a Warner Bros. film he produces and stars in that's scheduled for release in December.
Like many of the kids who participate in Mentor, Cruise grew up in a single-parent home. But he said it was there where he learned how to make a difference in strangers' lives.
"I grew up in a home where if a person didn't have a place to live, there was someone sitting at the table eating with us, and we didn't have a lot of money," Cruise said. "But that is the way my mother is. She is a very generous person."
Mentor co-founder Geoffrey Boisi said with the help of people like Cruise, NBA legend Bill Russell (search) and NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, the organization reaches nearly three million kids.
"But we still have a long way to go," said Boisi. "We'd like to get in all 50 states, and we'd like to bridge the gap and reach the more than 15 million kids out there who are in need."
Singer Michael Bolton (search) founded an organization that raises money for "at risk" children and says finding a program to partner with, like Mentor, is very important.
"Bill Cosby told me it's about reaching in and taking kids out one at a time," said Bolton. "If you can create a million mentors through corporations partnering, then you can take a million kids out of the street and out of a life that doesn't have any hope."
For Cruise, the matter is personal.
"I feel responsibility as a father and a citizen," Cruise said. "Everybody wants to have a better life. You can't measure the kind of joy I get when I see someone go through the program and suddenly, they are able to help themselves.
"I have seen people come in here with ADD (search), ADHD (search), dyslexia (search), whatever it is — doesn't matter," said Cruise. "They come in and they learn the tools and they apply those tools and suddenly you have somebody who is able to learn."
Bill Russell says the mentors sometime get more out of it than the kids.
"We try to make a connection between the generations, and make sure the connection is friendly," he said. "The only requirement is that they be kids."