CHARLOTTE — Living in a one-bedroom efficiency apartment, J.D. Lewis and his two sons are prepping themselves for a trip of a lifetime. Close quarters and simple living will be standard for the next year.
“This isn’t a luxury trip,” Lewis cautions.
In July, Lewis and his sons — 13-year-old Jackson and 8-year-old Buck — will depart for a year-long journey hopping from nation to nation as they visit 12 different cities across the globe. In each, they’ll assist in humanitarian work ranging from issues like famine and poverty to healthcare and education.
The mission, under the banner of Lewis’ organization, Twelve In Twelve, began innocently enough.
“Jack came home one day, and asked, ‘Why aren’t we doing more to help?’” Lewis says.
Jackson’s questions — Why are people starving? Why can’t people get medicine they need? Can’t we do something to help? — struck a chord with Lewis. On a whim, he called the global director of the Peace Corps. After a few conversations, some networking and brainstorming, Twelve In Twelve was born.
“I was clueless about what was going on in the world,” Lewis says of his previous knowledge of global issues. “It’s amazing that even today people in Rwanda have to walk 30 miles to get water. Can you imagine walking a full day just to get water for your family?”
Lewis and his sons will build a well. The cost is just $8,500, quite affordable for a city or town in America, but certainly out of reach for most small African villages.
“If we can build that well, we’ll change the lives of the people there forever,” Lewis says. “No more walking a full day just for something as simple as water.”
Lewis, who is gay and has spent his career as an acting coach, says the goal of his mission is to change lives and inspire other Americans to reach out and undertake their own humanitarian work.
“The idea is to become a sustainable project — to become a hub for these 12 locations across the globe and encourage families and groups to pick their own locations,” he says.
Lewis and his sons haven’t forgotten about their homeland, either. As a part of their journey, they’ll make a thirteenth stop in Mississippi. There they will assist in educational efforts and assist residents in accessing resources for housing, food and healthcare assistance.
Poverty in America, Lewis says, is different than poverty abroad. Even in the Deep South, disadvantaged citizens have access to government resources not readily available in many countries across the world.
“In some countries, if you are a citizen you can’t go to your government,” he says. “Here in America, there is just a lack of education. People have all these resources that just aren’t being used. No one has ever shown them how.”
Lewis is anxious to see how the year-long trip affects his two sons. He knows they’ll be fortunate enough to see complex global issues first-hand and be a part of the efforts to aid in their solution. It’s a luxury most American youth will never have, primarily, Lewis believes, because we’re too quick to shelter our children from the harsh realities that are part-and-parcel of daily life elsewhere.
“My job as a parent is not to protect my children from exposure to the truth; it is to show it to them,” he says. “I want my kids to be globally-minded. We have this tendency to want to protect our children from the truth and that just raises unknowledgeable and apathetic children. I know my kids will come back and appreciate what they have.”
As a part of their mission to bring wider exposure to these issues, Twelve In Twelve has teamed up with Scholastic, the Peace Corps and the Charlotte-based Mothering Across Continents to distribute video blogs and other material made by Jackson — who will post dispatches during the trip at globalteenblogger.com — to middle and high schools across the country. Lewis also hopes he’ll be able to match schools in Charlotte to sister schools in other countries.
Charlotte has been extremely supportive of his family’s mission. The project’s unique goals and style resonate with different people for different reasons, Lewis says. He’s glad so many people have taken notice — getting the message out throughout the trip and afterward is important.
At the end of his journey, Lewis hopes his children and others will learn to incorporate a simple mission into their own decision-making as they grow up and face adulthood: “What can I do to change a life?”
“Everything helps,” he says. “It really is that simple.” : :
— To learn more about Twelve In Twelve, contribute or follow Lewis’ and his sons’ journeys, visit twelveintwelve.info.
(Front page feature photography credit John Kure.)