Ben Jealous, 39, president and CEO of the NAACP, remembers the moment he thought: One way or the other, this is what I’m meant to be doing. (JOSEPH VICTOR STEFANCHIK/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

When I was a kid, my dad ran the local volunteer center. One of my first memories was climbing over a pile of clothes helping homeless folks find what they wanted among the new arrivals in the clothes closet; they hadn’t been sorted yet. And I was probably 4.

I arrived at college intending to go into business. I was attending Columbia University, thought I might end up on Wall Street. While I was [training] on the crew team, the train would go above ground at 125th Street, and you’d look right out the subway into the uncurtained windows of families in West Harlem tenements just a few yards away. A deep level of crushing poverty existed in the neighborhood. And so, within a few months, I decided to leave the crew team and started a group called the Harlem Restoration Project Youth Corps that worked for a group that provided management for buildings that had been abandoned by their landlords. We provided free labor to repair these tenements.

I think the moment that I knew there was no turning back from a life of service is the day I was walking down the stairs from restoring a unit toward a day care on the ground floor, and I ran into this little girl. Apparently the day care had just closed, and she was coming up the stairs. She said, “Where are you going?” I said, “I’ve got something in the back yard. I think we dropped a tool out the window; we need to go find it.” The back yard was the name that the kids had for this vile vacant lot next door. It was full of hypodermic needles and burned-out cars, broken televisions and dead rats because rat poison was cast about the place. And I would find her out there finding and sorting empty bottles and shaking them the way a 4-year-old would play in a sandbox. She was playing among the carcasses of dead rats and burned-out cars.

She said, “Stay out of the back corner, that’s where the girl got raped.” And I said, “Baby, what do you mean?” And she went on to define rape. This is a 4-year-old girl. And it just broke my heart in pieces.

It was just one of the moments that just kind of steel you, and you decide right then and there: One way or the other, this is what I’m meant to be doing. I’m meant to find creative ways to keep our country moving forward to a day beyond this, when racism and poverty can trap little girls, to a place where before the age of 5, they know the definition of the word “rape.” My daughter is 51 / 2. She’s about the size that [the little girl] was then, and it was just a real jarring reminder about how far we have to go in this country to eradicate poverty.