When Justin J. Pearson was growing up in Memphis, Tenn., he and his brother got used to sitting in front of the classroom, squinting up at the teacher’s lessons.
When his parents finally could afford to buy them glasses (when Pearson was in 9th grade), the two boys stood on their front steps slipping their new eyewear on and off to watch the trees transform from green blobs into individual leaves. They cheered like they were at a sports event. “Did you see that? Did you see that?” they yelled.
“There was elation because we could actually see for one of the first times at a distance, but also sadness,” Pearson recalled. “Here I am as a teenager and I thought about how much of the world I had missed, places I’d been and not really seen.”
For three weeks this July, Pearson ran Camp Hope in his home city with help from a Bowdoin grant, the Thomas Andrew McKinley ’06 Entrepreneur Grant, one of Career Planning’s summer funds for students. To give other kids growing up in poor Memphis neighborhoods the chance to see, Pearson arranged for those who participated in the camp free eye exams and glasses if they needed them.
Pearson designed Camp Hope to give teenagers growing up in poor and often violent city districts a chance to connect with their communities in a positive way. “The best way for me to help back home was to bring an opportunity to students who might otherwise be involved in activities they shouldn’t,” he said, such as gangs, “and to give them an opportunity to come together and attach themselves to a better side of the community.” A critical component, he added, was “to give them a sense of the benefits of education — to show them there is a way they can move forward.” He wanted Camp Hope to encourage students to commit to their futures and to not be defined by a difficult present or a troubled past.
Pearson, who has lived in South, East and North Memphis, grew up in poverty with four brothers. In time, his mother and father went back to school to earn bachelor’s and then master’s degrees. Now his mother is a teacher and his father a pastor. Watching his parents build a new life impressed Pearson. “I know education can be a ladder out of poverty,” he said.
While school was still in session last spring, Pearson visited two Memphis public high schools to make a pitch for Camp Hope. His program attracted almost 50 kids during its three weeks. Fifteen campers were regulars who showed up every day. All the students came from neighborhoods where the average family income hovers around $9,000. Pearson said some of them would not have been eating regular meals had the camp not provided food.
“They came here for the same reason,” Pearson said. “They were skeptical but inquisitive — they wanted to know whether there was something more they could do to make their life, their community and this world just a little bit better.”
The McKinley grant provided $5,000 for Pearson to launch the start-up summer program. He hired five college counselors, organized and paid for outings for campers, and bought school supplies. He raised another $6,000 from in-kind contributions. LensCrafters supplied free optometry exams and eyewear to campers who needed them; eight ended up with new glasses. Shelby County Schools Nutrition Services donated breakfasts, lunches and snacks to the campers. The Boys and Girls Club offered a space to meet.
Pearson structured Camp Hope into two parts. The first half of the camp focused on community issues and advocacy. The campers explored local problems, such as violence and child abuse, and came up with solutions they presented to a state representative. They also created flyers to distribute to the public that addressed the need for their community to create safe spaces for abused kids. In the second half, the camp’s focus widened to encompass global issues. Pearson said he wanted the campers to walk away with from the experience with the sense that they were part of “something larger than themselves.”
Throughout the camp, Pearson emphasized the importance of education. “We talked about social issues, as well as achievement, scholarships, college,” he said. “Education is the way we can climb from oppression.”
The students went on field trips around the city — to museums and to the offices of politicians and judges — and met with community members who visited the camp. These included state senator Jim Kyle, a spoken-word artist, and a representative from REACH Memphis, a college preparatory program. An AP English teacher came to talk about preparing for standardized tests.
At Bowdoin, Pearson is a government and legal studies major, and is interested in education policy and law. He plans to go to law school. “I have a huge interest in government and the possibilities of government and how the policies affect people,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to help people as best as I knew how,” he added.
To see what other Bowdoin students are up to this summer, check out this interactive map by Nina Underman ’15.