Volunteer gives back by encouraging youths to prepare for college

By Cassandra Spratling

Detroit Free Pres

Published: Sunday, Feb. 5 2012 11:02 p.m. MST

Edmund Lewis, right, talks with students he mentors at Detroit Community High School in Detroit. Lewis volunteers at the school and works as an outreach worker for The Brightmoor Alliance.

Romain Blanquart, MCT

DETROIT — Edmund Lewis never gave any thought to going to college.

Growing up, his grades were mediocre. Mostly, he hung out with friends, acting as if he didn't care about anything. He ran track for his high school team in rural North Carolina.

That's what young black boys did, he thought, never having had a father figure to talk with about what he could — and should — aspire to do.

Then one day during his senior year, a man who volunteered at his school stopped him and asked about his plans after high school.

"I don't know, and I don't care," was Lewis' response.

But he did care, and the man, Gregory Lee, knew it.

Lee told Lewis that he ought to go to college. And Lee went further: He helped Lewis fill out applications and apply for scholarships and paid the application fees.

"He basically took away every reason I had for saying no," Lewis said.

Four years later, Lewis graduated with honors from North Carolina Central University. In 2009, he received a master's degree in social work from the University of Michigan.

Since then, Lewis moved to Detroit and vowed to pay Lee back by giving back — following in the footsteps of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

He works as a community support specialist, coordinating services and programs through the Brightmoor Alliance, on Detroit's west side.

Since last year, he has spent hours volunteering at Community High School.

He recently formalized his volunteer efforts by creating a nonprofit called Minority Males for Higher Education. The intent of the initiative is to ensure that young black men have all the resources they need to get into college and be successful once there.

"There were so many things I didn't know, that can make you uncomfortable in a professional setting," Lewis said.

The group will teach young men such things as dressing for success and dining etiquette. In addition to visiting college campuses, the young men will attend plays and other programs to broaden their experiences.

The need is great. In Detroit, only 7 percent of black men ages 25 and older have a bachelor's degree or higher, according to 2010 U.S. Census data. But Lewis didn't need statistics to know the need.

"When I got to college, I realized I was one of a very select group of black males to go," he said.

Being there made him hunger for a better life.

"You can't envision anything else if you don't see anything else," Lewis said.

During college, he went on a civil rights tour that took him to the Edmund Pettis Bridge, the site of the attack on people marching peacefully for civil rights from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery, Ala. One of the marches was led by King.

Lewis began to see getting an education not as a personal feat but as a community necessity — a way to not only say thank you to Lee, but to men and women before him who had sacrificed to create opportunities for him and others.

During his college years, he began volunteering and joining and becoming a leader in such organizations as 100 Black Men and Omega Psi Phi fraternity.

His grades and community service work earned him a full-tuition scholarship to the University of Michigan and led to a fellowship from the Max M. & Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation. The fellowship included an internship that introduced him to Brightmoor neighborhood in Detroit and Community High School.

He also volunteers at the school.

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