River Lewis felt the kindness of a stranger first-hand.
When he was just 11 years old, his mom couldn't afford to send him to camp on her own, raising six children on a single salary. But an anonymous donation through their church community in Salisbury paved the way, and Lewis attended Camp Barnhart—and started a lifelong love.
After years of going and then working at the Boy Scout retreat, the now-20-year-old decided to return the favor. He raised more than $4,000 to bring a group of young boys from Atlanta to one of his favorite spots: a week at Camp Barnhart.
"It's been a great experience," Lewis said. "I know what that one week of camp did for me and how it had me. My goal was to give that back to the boys because a lot of them come from the inner city of Atlanta."
Operation Summer Exposure brought seven youths from Atlanta as well as two from Kannapolis and two from Salisbury—both towns where Lewis once lived—to the Boy Scout camp for five days of adventure.
"We spent an entire week doing things they wouldn't usually do as far as being able to fish, being able to build a fire, being able to learn about geology, just to get them out of their normal comfort zone," Lewis said. "I knew the camp and everything it meant for me."
A junior at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Lewis attends on scholarship, which includes a community service component. So he volunteered in the city's public school system, mentoring and working closely with the students. He saw many of them came from underprivileged homes, with more than 90 percent of the school on free and reduced lunch.
So Lewis had an idea.
He contacted Boy Scouts of America and his old boss at Camp Barnhart and pitched a project—bringing a handful of inner city kids up to camp. The organization gave him a goal fundraising amount of $3,000, and Lewis got started. He set up a GoFundMe account for $4,000, a little wiggle room for other expenses, and began raising awareness.
"I was like, $3,000, that's cool; I'm not trippin'," he said. "But I added on $1,000 to it as a safety net just in case something happened."
But in no time at all family and friends blew Lewis' expectations out of the water.
"I literally had raised over $4,000 in little over a month and a half just through the community, through people that had seen me at camp every single year," he said. "Whenever I was at camp, this one scout master gave me $225, another $50. Troops were giving me $30 or $40 here and there all because they remembered my face, they remembered my name."
A grant through his scholarship upped the total to almost $6,000.
"The amount of support and everything, it was so profound," Lewis said. "I was just so blessed to do this project. It was so much fun, and the amount of support I had was just—I didn't have to do anything by myself because people were so loving and so into giving back."
The junior originally planned to bring 11 boys from Atlanta to camp, but a few had to back out, so he switched to include a few from his two former home towns in North Carolina. Picking participants came as no easy feat, but Lewis said he looked at those boys from his mentoring group and attempted to choose those from hard home situations who wouldn't pose behavioral issues. He had all the boys sign behavior contracts, though he said he didn't have any problems on the trip.
But while the end product turned out better than he could have imagined, Lewis said there were times along the way he felt he'd gotten in a little over his head. His passion for the cause, however, kept him going strong.
"This is something that I really enjoy," he said. "It's something that I love; I love going to camp every year. Whenever I started the project, I felt like I bit off more than I can chew; I was like, 'Oh I'm going to do this. This is something that I love.' And then a whole bunch of things happened that were going to deter me, but the drive kept me on my toes because I knew the impact. Just doing the project was so much fun. It was so much fun, it didn't feel like a project; it just felt like another week at camp."
A week at camp
The boys pulled into Camp Barnhart on a Monday afternoon in late July. Throughout that week, they got in some shooting practice, canoeing, swimming, fishing, sailing and zip-lining. A geography lesson taught them about different local rocks, and a nature walk helped point out the various animals and trees in the area.
They learned how to set up a tent, build a fire and cook their own food—grilled cheese being a meal of choice—skills they didn't use often in the inner city. On the way back to Atlanta, the group stopped at the North Carolina Transportation Museum and rode a steam engine.
"The first night was very hectic because a lot of the boys, they had never slept in the outdoors with bugs and everything else," Lewis said. "They were flashing their flashlights all over the net, and they were like, 'There are bugs all in my tent, and I can't get them out.' One of the boys came and woke me up and was like, 'I see yellow eyes on the porch. I can't sleep by myself.' "
But Lewis said he enjoyed watching the boys step outside of their own comfort zone, stretch the norm a bit, try new things—and discover how much they liked it.
"A lot of them this was the first time they had been somewhere without their parents let alone outside the state of Georgia," he said. "So watching them learn and watching them think hard, the things we had to do, rowing, and seeing how interested they were in building the fire. When you're in the middle of Atlanta, building a fire isn't the first thing on your agenda, so doing that with them was a lot of fun."
Making a difference
Given the impact Camp Barnhart had on his own life, Lewis said he knew how important that gift could be to these young boys. The new experience offered them opportunities to explore the world and themselves that they hadn't had before—and it also showed them someone cared.
"Some of these boys, they really just need to be loved because some of their situations at home; you have no idea what they're going through at home," he said. "I remember being a child and everyone saying this and that and nobody really listening to what I had to say or what I wanted to do; you're a child. Camp allowed me to really talk to them and listen to them and ask them what they wanted to do next year on the project and what they enjoyed most this year."
Since Lewis' father died when he was a toddler, his mother—Mercedes Harrington—said he could empathize with some of the situations these kids lived with. But even in the face of his own struggles, Lewis reached beyond himself. And Harrington said she was just in awe.
"I know River has a chance of doing some great things," she said. "I think he's a wonderful young man. Sometimes I look at him and think, 'Where did you come from?' He never ceases to amaze me. He combined what he knew, what he had experienced along with the needs of little boys of color because he was fatherless. He sees what goes on in a home where there was no male.
"I love this young man. I'm just looking forward to seeing what he can do and what he can become."
Looking to the future
Moving forward, Lewis said he wants to make Operation Summer Exposure an annual thing. He already has designed T-shirts and is selling them to raise money for the 2017 adventure.
This first run has taught the young man a lot, and Lewis said he knows now he must start planning a lot earlier. He hopes to have applications and training for staff and perhaps extend the trip to two weeks.
"I really want to turn this into a big thing," he said. "Just getting out, being in a different environment, being exposed to something—it means so much to me."
Lewis said he's ready to face the challenge head on, drawing strength from the support of those around him and following advice his grandma once told him.
"Just through me giving back and giving back selflessly has helped develop me tremendously as a person, and my grandmother has built that in me so much," he said. "She has a way of just dropping tidbits of information with me, but one thing she told me that really stuck with me was, 'God doesn't always have time to be down here on earth, and that's why he blesses people so you can bless somebody else.' If you always think of yourself last, then you won't have to worry about anything else because it will show in your actions."