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Romain Blanquart, MCT
Edmund Lewis, right, helps Kay'wuan Stephens, 16, put on a new jacket he gave him. Lewis encourages young black men to pursue a college education.

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.

"He's up here so much, it's almost like he's on staff," said principal Aaron Williams. "He mentors our young people, helps them with college applications. He has even attended our parent-teacher conferences. He has a tremendous heart for young people. He and I share the same passion for helping young men, in particular. We know that keeping them on track in terms of getting an education can take them away from a life of crime. There's an unspoken culture that says all we do is rob, steal and kill. We know that's not true."

The youngsters he works with expressed appreciation during a meeting at which he measured them for dress shirts and gave away coats and ties donated by members of his fraternity.

Aaaqi Peterson, 18, a senior, plans to go to North Carolina Central, just as Lewis did.

"His whole speech moves me to try harder and go farther," said Peterson, who wants to study business and music.

Emmanuel Whitley, 16, a junior, said Lewis built up his self-confidence.

"I didn't believe in myself," Whitley said. "Now I work harder in school, and I want to be a computer engineer."

Khari Greene, 17, also a senior, said the men can relate to Lewis because his background is similar to theirs. "It's just good for a man who doesn't even know us to start talking to us and saying he'll help us get to where we want to be."