River Lewis benefited from ‘mentors who looked like me’
By Maggie Blackwell
“Morehouse gave me what I’d subconsciously craved from childhood: positive relationships with mentors who looked like me,” says River Lewis, a 22-year old recent graduate of the Atlanta college.
River is tall and lanky, and moves with ease and grace. Although he’s inclined to hug someone he meets, his handshake is strong and he has a direct gaze. His braided hair is carefully coifed atop his head like a crown.
He’s working now to provide the same mentorship he received to young men who also look like him. Through his non-profit he is matching minority business leaders with at-risk boys from Salisbury and Atlanta.
He was an honors student at A.L. Brown High School, but had no idea where he was headed until his senior year, when a friend told him about Morehouse College. Established in 1867, Morehouse is a private, all-male, historically black college. Alumni include Dr. Martin Luther King and Spike Lee and many other leaders across arts, government and industry. River looked it up and knew it was right for him.
When River was a young boy he lost his dad to cancer. He grew up as the only male in the home, with a single mom and five sisters.
“I logged onto the website and saw powerful black men in positions of authority. I’d never seen men who look like me in positions of power. Going to school there gave me a sense of confidence. As I matriculated through Morehouse, it altered me mentally, physically, socially and spiritually. I learned how to walk, how to speak and how to function as a strong positive unit in the world.”
River was awarded a community service scholarship, using his Eagle Scout project as an example of his work. In return for the scholarship, he was obligated to perform community service in the Atlanta area.
Initially River worked at M. Agnes Jones Elementary School in metro Atlanta. Jones School is a majority minority school with 90 percent free and reduced lunches.
“I was glad to do it,” River says. “I knew what education meant to me, what it meant in my life. I knew this route would either show me where my passion is, or it would point me in another direction. I ‘d mentor these boys, we’d participate in games or activities for greater lessons. We played Monopoly and discussed finance. We talked about dress and etiquette. After my first year, I reflected. This was an amazing time. How can I impact them?”
In sophomore year, River worked at a homeless shelter and continued to think about the kids back at M. Agnes Jones. “I asked myself, ‘what is something that changed my life for the better?’ — and I always came back to the camp experience.”
River attended Camp Barnhardt every year since 2007, initially as a camper, then as a counselor-in-training, then as a counselor. Today he serves as the aquatics director there.
“The first year I went, my mom had five other kids in the home, and $250 for a week of camp for me was out of the question. My church, Sandy Ridge AME Zion, paid for it. It was amazing from the start. I’d never been in the forest before. I was waking up in the morning, walking to the flagpoles, having breakfast and earning merit badges. The counselors were so positive! They showed they cared about me. I was making new relationships, fishing, singing camp songs, getting out of my box.
“Today I can talk to anybody, but back then I was shy, a crybaby, had my hands over my face. At camp I was not scared to talk to somebody.
“I was so glad to be away from my sisters — the only boy in the household! I was thrilled to make a fire, walk the trails, make s’mores. The last day of camp came, and I was devastated.”
This was the experience River kept remembering as he sought how to impact the lives of the boys back at M. Agnes Jones. “So I reflected on this experience and developed Operation Summer Exposure in 2016. I wanted to see how a boy’s environment could affect his socialization.
“I was required to complete a capstone project for graduation. I looked at how summer enrichment camps affect self-confidence and self-image. Being outside your primary group affects your confidence. How new experiences such as singing songs, catching a fish, or having a daily routine can affect young men. I had nine boys I wanted to mentor. I went to district Boy Scout executives and asked how much it would cost to take nine boys to camp. The answer was $5,000. ‘OK!’ I said, and I got to work. I put together a GoFundMe account and developed a document. People donated like wildfire! I raised about $6,000 in a month and a half.
“So I took nine boys to Camp Barnhardt. It was amazing, enlightening and anxiety-filled. I had to be sure everyone was having fun and not getting hurt. I gave each boy responsibilities to be accountable — wash off the tables at breakfast or get all the boys to this location for a meeting at 8:30. I’m designating them to be leaders, and this helps them gain confidence. I’m building trust. They knew I mean business. I don’t accept mediocrity. My mom taught me that; I’m putting my own twist on it.
“We’ve been to Camp Barnhardt three years now, the boys and I. They truly have grown so much. One mom called me and said her son has done so well — no backtalk, taking out the garbage, when can he go back? The boys have stayed in touch with each other, too.”
It was nerve-wracking to be responsible for so many boys, River says, but worth it. He watched their communication on Monday and compared it to the end of the week. Their confidence had grown, and they were communicating on an entirely different level.
He credits his grandmother Aggie Harrington with his heart for philanthropy. She used to cook and send tubs of food to a barbershop in the West End. “She always told me you don’t do something because you want attention,” River says, “you do it because it needs done.”
“ ‘River,’ she said, ‘God doesn’t always have time to help everyone personally, so he blesses them by giving them people who can help.’” He smiles. “Always be a cheerful giver. Not to receive or get recognition.
“I’ve been able to fund six projects under my non-profit, and I’m taking it to the next level. I wouldn’t be who I am without her. She loved me like I was her own.”
Today, after three summers at Camp Barnhardt, River is taking the boys on another adventure. Over MLK weekend, they’ll travel to Cataloochee, Tenn. in the Smokies, for a ski trip. He has rented an Air B&B house, and his mom is coming along. Accompanying them are minority entrepreneurs: a chef, an author, a barber, an artist and a photographer.
“Not everyone will go to college. Trades are a valuable asset. You may not have the emotional support to go to college. You may not have a financial foundation. Only 22 percent of college students actually graduate. That emotional and family support is so crucial.”
“This entire weekend is planned around planting the seeds of entrepreneurship in these young men’s minds. Also coming is my close “brother” — and my mom. My mom is no joke. She has supported me in everything I do.”
Over the four-day trip, the group will ski and snowboard in the mountains. Back at the house, they’ll hear from each of the entrepreneurs on his craft and what it took to start a business. They’ll return to Salisbury on Monday, January 21 — MLK Day. In Salisbury they’ll clean up litter in the West End.
River gets serious and leans forward. “What I’m trying to do is revamp the idea of masculinity. It’s not always about bigger and better. It’s more about do I have their back. If you beat someone up and go to jail, who wins?
“These boys are my life. I’d go crazy if I saw them on the news, a convicted felon. All those boys out there, committing crimes, they just need attention, someone who loves them.
“It takes a village. I’d be nothing without all the people behind me, and I couldn’t do these projects without the people who support them.”