With the end of his college career in sight, River Lewis has no plans to stop giving back to his community.
The former Kannapolis resident won’t even let a two-year stint in the Peace Corps get in the way of the foundation he has created, the summer camp experience he wanted to pass on to other young boys through Operation Summer Exposure.
“I’m excited,” Lewis said. “I want it to be bigger and better this year. I really want it to make a huge impact this year. It definitely makes an impact even if I only affect five or six boys, but this year I really want—it’ll be my last year before I head out. I’m ready for it.”
Lewis started Operation Summer Exposure three summers ago just before his junior year at Morehouse College in Atlanta. Looking for a way to give back to the community, he decided to bring a group of at-risk youth to the summer camp he attended growing up: Camp Barnhardt.
“I just sat down and thought what is something I want to do that I can impact boys as seriously as it impacted me?” he said. “And I was like take them to camp. Those were my original stomping grounds. I loved camp. Those friends that you make at camp are life friends.”
The program brought seven young boys from Atlanta as well as two from Kannapolis and two from Salisbury—both towns were Lewis once lived—to camp that first year. And it has continued to grow since. Lewis brought several boys back again last summer, as well as a few new faces, and will do the same thing this summer, this time with close to 14 participants.
“My whole main goal is to try to expose these young men to something that they don’t normally see, to spark something,” he said. “Because you never know what being exposed to a certain thing can do for you. It’s like I would never have gotten to that place if I didn’t have that exposure.”
Lewis said he thinks the program has already made a difference for some of the boys. He said he has seen the growth in those who returned the second year.
“The boys that came from Salisbury that I brought the first year came back, and it was so much growth for them,” he said. “The boys literally teach me more about myself than I teach them throughout the entire week. The one thing that I really stressed throughout the week was you have your brother’s back, and we’re all in this together, all working for a better tomorrow. It’s not about who’s bigger, who’s better. It’s how can you all combine your talents to get over the hump and make it better for everybody else.”
This past year, his senior year at Morehouse, Lewis decided to branch out his program beyond just the summer camp. Operation Exposure became an umbrella organization looking to educate college-age kids on various things from health to giving back to the community.
“I had a doctor come out and talk about holistic food and what you eat really affects how you perform,” he said. “Another project I had a day party. They had to bring school supplies, and all the school supplies went to Atlanta public schools.”
Lewis said he hopes to continue Operation Exposure to teach young children ages 10 to 15 as well as older kids everything from dress etiquette to how to manage money to the importance of community get-togethers for a good cause.
“I don’t have everything knitted down for Operation Exposure yet,” he said. “But it’s coming together.”
Lewis will graduate from Morehouse College on Sunday, May 20, and though that chapter of his education is behind him, the North Carolina native still has big plans. This summer, Lewis will embark on a two-year journey with the Peace Corps.
“Honestly, service is where my heart is at,” he said. “Giving doesn’t stop here in the United States. I felt like I was really going to grow as a person, and me putting myself in the Peace Corps was going to definitely put me out of my comfort zone, and that’s what’s definitely going to promote growth.”
Even with the two-year commitment in his future, however, Lewis said he had no intention of letting Operation Exposure or the summer camp fall through the cracks. He will lead the summer program this summer—his third consecutive year—before turning the reigns over to his mother and a few others who have helped him the last two years.
Going forward, Lewis said he hopes to continue to expand the program, perhaps opening it up to girls if he can find female leadership. He has already put in the paperwork to make Operation Exposure an official nonprofit.
“I really do love giving back,” he said. “It feeds me more than it feeds over people, me seeing the impact that I’m making—not me, but me seeing what this is really doing to these young boys and these college kids.”