I’m a planner and when things don’t go as planned it throws me for a loop. Such was the case when I sat down with Mid-South Rotarians (members of the worldwide charitable organization Rotary International) Roy Ray and Gray Carter. The plan was to speak with them about their mentorship efforts with various organizations throughout the city, including those propelled by The Giving Hour, a “community connectivity engine” - and we did. But as our conversation at a local coffee shop continued far past the allotted time, I realized that this was about so much more than mentorship: this was about the staunch commitment to societal change by two men whose compassion and determination to make a difference in the lives of others surpassed that of most I’ve met in the course of my career. This was about an unwavering belief in the possibility of change for those whose lives could be abundant, if only life as they know it could change. It’s been a long, a long time coming but if Ray and Carter have anything to do with it, a change is gonna come.
Both men are heavily involved in the Rotary-Family Youth Initiative (Rotary FYI), of which Ray is the Interim Director; Carter is the District Governor Elect for Rotary International District 6800 (Shelby County/Memphis and North Mississippi ). They explain to me the importance of being involved at the foundational level: finding ways to bring about healing at the roots rather than applying band-aids to surface issues. Ray references the studies showing that a child’s brain is 80% developed within the first 1000 days of life and how Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) can disrupt and damage the development process. “We’re locking up emotionally damaged kids,” he says when considering the county’s juvenile delinquency problem. “We must become trauma sensitive and trauma responsive,” Ray continues, reflecting on the ACEs that no child should have to endure: domestic violence, physical and emotional abuse, parental alcohol and drug use. Carter agrees and explains why Rotarians such as Pastor Charlie Caswell, Jr., whose presence in the Frayser community of Memphis has been undeniably impactful, have made it part of their mission to educate families on the effects of ACEs on a child’s life.
Caswell, through his Family Connect effort, has implemented the “7 P’s” as part of what Ray calls a “holistic, systemic” strategy to heal much of our city’s brokenness which unveils itself in areas such as poverty, homelessness, joblessness, gangs, drugs, and juvenile crime. Caswell believes when parents, principals, pastors, policemen, proprietors, politicians and partners come together concrete change will be seen. In fact, he has the numbers to prove it: there has been a 30% reduction in youth referred to the juvenile court system from the Old Allen Precinct in the Raleigh/Frayser area because of Family Connect and its requirements that youth entrusted to them are mentored for eighteen months and complete an eight week course to address the underlying causes of their current state of affairs. Parents must complete a ten week course addressing the same. Again, we see the importance and necessity of mentorship even in the most dire of circumstances.
“The organization alone will not solve problems,” Carter states. “Rotary FYI isnt’ an umbrella or a conduit,” Ray adds. “It’s a catalyst.” He elaborates that the organization is, like yeast is to dough, the impetus for building and strengthening the environment in which it is placed, until there is sufficient opportunity for those in that environment to thrive. This takes manpower and both men have spent years dedicating their time and resources to ensure that a sufficient amount of it is made available to the youth and families who need it most. “How can I convince people to mentor if I’m not doing it?” asks Carter, rhetorically.
Just as Rotary International has worked diligently since 1979 to eradicate polio (reducing cases by 99.9% worldwide with the help of partners including the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, March of Dimes, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and many others), so also it intends to substantially reduce juvenile delinquency because “it is the right thing to do.” They will do this through continued efforts focused on ACEs awareness, consistently being part of mentorship opportunities and adhering to three vital principles embraced by Rotarians: setting the goal, partnering [with organizations and individuals wanting to make a difference], and raising funds. “We are the premier international human services organization” expresses Ray, “[and we] make an impact by being ‘people of action’ locally and around the world.”
As I mentioned, when things don’t go as planned for me it throws me for a loop. When a recent tragedy hit close to home, rather than my usual state of feeling sadness followed by anger, I felt these emotions in reverse. With both my feelings and confusion still fresh, Carter shared with me that he knew the family which had been subjected to this inexplicable and undeserved pain, yet I noticed he wasn’t angry the way I had initially been. As we spoke about the situation his sympathy for all parties involved was profound and clear. I realized even more in this particular moment that the work he and Ray are doing for those whom many might consider a “lost cause” is from the depths of a place I aspire to reach but, truthfully, haven’t gotten to yet. I was reminded of the lyrics to one of my favorite songs in which the singer asks God, “Break my heart for what breaks Yours.” I believe that the hearts of Ray, Carter and Caswell break a little each time they encounter a child who has endured a toxic level of stress before he or she has even reached 1000 days on this earth. And I believe they will spend their lifetimes working on ways to erase this toxicity from the lives of these children who deserve better. Carter and Ray believe, and I agree with them, that Rotary is the ideal organization to work through to improve the lives of these struggling families, children and youth.
This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for the work these leaders and the Rotary organizations are doing in our communities; I am thankful for their examples of compassion and unwavering faith in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. I am thankful for their mindfulness, their mentorship, and their persistence in making a difference. Because it is the right thing to do.
Happy Thanksgiving, Memphis.