I will always remember sitting in church listening to our pastor share prayer concerns on May 20, 2018, as he does every Sunday. He was going through a list of names when he mentioned a 19-year-old young man named Maurice Lewis who was fighting for his life after being shot in the head. I immediately looked at my wife with anxiety and concern, hopped on Instagram, and confirmed my worst fear. This was the same Maurice Lewis that I taught in my 8th-grade science class in our town of Millville years ago…

Life seems like a whirlwind since that day. Maurice (Reese to anyone that knew him) passed away later that day. His mother and sisters, friends, family, and so many others that loved and counted on him were left to grapple with this sudden devastation and loss. We responded with videos, writing, and more, but ultimately, we were lost and didn’t know how to act or what to do.

Reese’s family asked me to speak at his services, which is something that I have never done before, let alone speak for a student who lost his life in the manner that he did. When I spoke, I focused on honoring his legacy of helping and supporting others, of rising up together to create something worthwhile of his memory, and of keeping him alive in more than our minds, but through our actions.

Fast forward a few months and numerous conversations with his friends, family, former students, and community members later. We bonded together over this idea of building Reese’s House, a youth center that we wanted to establish in our community of Millville, New Jersey. See, our town can be great, but we have significant issues with drug and gang violence, poverty, and lack of opportunities for our youth. It’s why Reese was murdered when someone in his car rolled a window down. It’s why a parent was gunned down in daylight at a youth football practice in front of his own kids and countless other children and adults.

Over time, the idea for Reese’s House grew from a place for kids to go after school to a full-service whole-child youth center. We would focus on the academic, physical, social, emotional, and mental well-being of our youth with a strong emphasis on innovation and entrepreneurship. We understand that this needs to expand beyond just something for kids to do and provide genuine opportunities for them to grow and shine.

Imagine a place that picks up where our schools leave off. A place where kids can talk to professionals to work through their traumatic experiences. A place where students can get help with school work. A place where (through proposed partnerships) a health clinic offers inclusive and equitable healthcare for families. A place where kids can participate in athletics, focus on fitness, and learn real sportsmanship lessons with their friends. A place where youth can focus on their passions in recording studios, fabrication labs, culinary kitchens, and much more. A place where we work with kids to identify issues in their community and use innovation to create solutions. A place where, through an entrepreneurial lens, we show how we can turn these solutions into business opportunities to fuel their community. A place where we don’t build kids based on standards, but on their own needs and passions. Can you see it yet?

We can! It’s why we created a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, Our Future First, to make this happen. It’s why all of the profits from our work in schools and other organizations providing programs and professional development will go directly to establishing Reese’s House. It’s why we believe this is how we honor the memory and life of Reese and build our community.

So how can you help? Simple. Make a small donation (every single penny matters). Reach out if you need some help in your schools or organizations. I promise you, we can help. Partner with us so that we can support each other’s work. Share our story with your friends, family, and network to help create awareness and support.

Building Reese’s House in our community is the first step in creating opportunities for our youth in Millville, New Jersey. Manufacturing a blueprint to do this level of work in other areas is the next step. Tearing down systemic barriers to our youth’s success is the ultimate goal. It’s what Reese would want, and it’s what we are going to accomplish. For him and for our kids. It’s how we put our future first.