By Cherri Gregg
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Michele Lawrence is at the top of her game in corporate America. She’s the area president for Wells Fargo, supervising 39 locations in the Philadelphia area, $2.5 billion in deposits, and $1 billion in loans.
But three years ago, while attending a meeting at the School District of Philadelphia, she says her heart ached after hearing dire statistics about the future of young African-American men.
“At that time we were at 50 percent of them dropping out of high school,” says Lawrence, “and then Dr. Ackerman said, ‘They’re going to build three new prisons, based on eight-year-old boys’ test scores.’ That means you’re telling kids you’re going to be an inmate instead of a graduate.”
That reality was upsetting. Her nephew was eight years old at the time.
“I was angered,” Lawrence recalls. “I was frustrated. And then I became convicted.”
Lawrence has expertise in economics and investments. So she decided to invest in young black men and started “Saving Our Boys,” a nonprofit that provides monthly leadership training to young African-American men in high school.
She says the goal is to help break the cycle of poverty.
“It’s a soup-to-nuts, holistic approach to getting our boys to understand who they are, what’s their history, so they can create a better legacy,” she says. “They have not been exposed to our history. We were kings and queens in Africa, we performed the first open-heart surgery, we invented the stoplight! When we share that with them, the light comes on.”
Lawrence works with about a dozen male coaches who provide an intensive week-long immersion program to acclimate the young men each summer. Then they meet with the boys once a month for six hours, providing workshops and history lessons, taking them on field trips, and providing community service opportunities that help stretch the young men beyond their comfort zones and open their minds to possibility.
“We engage them with successful African-American men, and we bring these young men through the rites of passage,” says Lawrence.
So far, Lawrence says, they have helped 30 boys. Twelve boys have graduated from high school and all of them have gone to college.
And now, Saving Our Boys is expanding to bring in middle-schoolers. They’re also bringing their graduates back to “pay it forward.”
“There is nothing that compares to watching them grow, watching them mature, watching that light turn on to their future,” says Lawrence. “Watching them helps me.”
As a woman, Lawrence says she’s simply the catalyst for Saving Our Boys. She says the men who work with her boys are the key to the program’s success.
“I know that it takes the men that I know to make an impact,” she says. “I know only a man can teach a boy to be a man.”
She says partnerships with men’s organizations, colleges, and other nonprofits has been critical to her organization’s success. Lawrence is hoping the future will be a school, but she won’t be able to do that alone.
“Our mantra is, ‘It takes a village to raise our boys.’ ”
Saving Our Boys begins its summer program later this month. For more information on the organization, go to facebook.com/SavingOurBoys.
Hear the podcast…