Kelly John-Lewis wanted a better life for his two boys, and he felt that Mercer Island would be a good place for them to thrive.
John-Lewis addressed the question as to why a Black man would choose to raise his kids of color on a predominantly all-white Island with very little diversity during his keynote speech at the Mercer Island Youth and Family Services (MIYFS) Foundation’s 19th annual fundraising breakfast on Feb. 10. The Rise Up! event was held online this year due to the pandemic.
The Mercer Island High School (MIHS) security liaison for the past 21 years grew up with gangs nearby in La Puente, California, and his family moved to Kennewick when was 14. School wasn’t easy or important to him, and he was diagnosed with dyslexia at 19 while attending the University of Washington.
It was a tough decision for John-Lewis to move to the Island with his family, which includes Kaleb and Jakob, who are now ages 20 and 17, respectively.
“I wanted them to receive a better education than I did. I wanted them to be safe. I wanted them to understand the importance of an education and I wanted them to have a better future than myself. I wanted to give them the same opportunities as all the white kids and all the Asian kids had,” he said while becoming emotional. “I wanted to give them a better life than the majority of the Black children in this country have, and for that, it was worth it.”
Kaleb will be the first person in his family to earn a college degree, dad proudly added. John-Lewis and his three siblings — who were raised to be good people and be held accountable for their actions — graduated from high school and received college sports scholarships, but none of them earned degrees.
While John-Lewis said he’s formed phenomenal relationships with Island families through coaching and school, he feels that he’s denied Kaleb and Jakob a proper Black culture.
“Black culture — it’s energy, it’s excitement. For me, (it was) growing up and being raised around people that looked like me, that thought like me, I had more teachers that looked like me. Even though the environment wasn’t the best or the safest, I felt accepted,” said John-Lewis.
John-Lewis feels that for Islanders to make their city more welcoming for people of color, they need to reach out and get to know them.
“If we really believe it takes a village, then it takes a village. We all need to be part of it,” he said.
He’ll be reaching out as well at the high school by getting to know every student of color and being a role model.
“It’s needed and I think I can do that,” said John-Lewis, who is returning to the UW to complete his bachelor’s degree in sociology.
McHale kicks off event
** While MIHS alumnus and actor/comedian Joel McHale put his humor into play as master of ceremonies, he hoped the event could help connect everyone, and that attendees could gain a better understanding of the struggles facing Island children, neighbors and seniors.
At post time, the MIYFS Foundation preliminary gross fundraising total from the breakfast was $440,000. To donate, visit https://tinyurl.com/y29zs3tb.
According to the foundation’s website: “Our Island’s families, businesses and nonprofit organizations are hurting. The COVID 19 pandemic will have lasting effects on our community for decades to come. Significant budget cuts, significantly limited Thrift Shop hours, reduced staff, and countless other challenges mean that our community must rally together. It’s time to Rise Up! for MIYFS.”
MIYFS Foundation Board President Jim Schwab spoke at the event and said he wished that everybody could be together in person like before.
“Through the magic of techonlogy, our volunteers were able to rise up and create this virtual event for you. I want to invite you to learn more about and support the work of MIYFS and the MIYFS Foundation.”
** KUOW Radio host Bill Radke conducted interviews with Island students, parents, teachers and counselors and their comments were pieced together as one of the main features of the event.
Two students discussed how being isolated at home — away from friends and some family members — has been a major challenge during the pandemic. Another student said it was a year of eye-opening discovery, in that high-schoolers who are often wrapped up in their own worlds have seen how the pandemic has affected people from around the nation.
One counselor said it’s been hard to watch an increase in substance abuse, child abuse and emotional abuse over the last year.
Some interviewees discussed defeating racism. An Island march in June involved more than 1,000 residents, teachers and students, and people engaged in open and authentic conversations on difficult topics.
Finally, one parent said that it’s time to advocate and promote for diversity and inclusion. She added that when things are at their darkest points, human hope and innovation can shine.
** The We Love MI COVID Relief Campaign brought a needed light to the community by raising more than a quarter of a million dollars for small businesses and nonprofits during the pandemic. The ongoing campaign was named the 2021 Community Philanthropy Award winner.