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Children’s book illustrator E. B. Lewis: Mentoring kids requires showing you care about them

The theme at the Neighborhood Interfaith Movement’s (NIM) 23 Annual Assembly on Thursday evening at the Germantown Jewish Center (GJC) was “Kasserian Ingera,” a traditional greeting of the Masai people of Kenya which means “And how are the children?”

Annette Freeman, mistress of ceremonies and director of NIM’s Early Learning Alliance, described the evening as “an opportunity tonight to see how our children are doing.” And judging from presentations by youthful members of NIM’s 56 member congregations and faith-based organizations, and the activism on behalf of youth honored by awards to 29 members of 12 different congregations, the Northwest’s children are getting plenty of encouragement and mentoring.

Before the main speaker, award-winning children’s book illustrator E. B. Lewis, the audience was treated to a poetry recital by Bakari Porter, age 13, of Marianne Williamson’s “Our Deepest Fear,” and singing by the Youth Choir of Second Baptist Church of Germantown, whose spirited and melodic rendition of “Down By the Riverseide” drew particular applause from the well over 100 in attendance.

The thrust of Lewis’s address to the assembly was the importance of not simply of mentoring and advising children, but showing them that they are cared about. “Kids don’t care what you know until they know that you care,” he said.

He described an appearance that he had made at a middle school before perhaps 600 students, where he began by asking them a simple question “How many of you care?’ and asked for a show of hands. Perhaps 50 students raised their hands. “I stood there dumfounded,” he said. He went on to speak to them for an hour, telling them of his own experience in growing up.

He described his childhood by saying, “By the time I reached third grade I had failed.” He was doing poorly in school and acting out at home. One particular embarrassment he recalled was being laughed at by his classmates at a sixth grade career day when he said he wanted to be a lawyer. “That can destroy a child,” he observed.

What changed his life was being mentored by his uncle, who drove to his home from New Jersey on a Saturday morning and took him to the Temple University Arts League which he directed. “He did that for six years,” said Lewis.

Lewis went on to a successful career as a fine artist and educator, teaching in elementary and high schools and now as at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of the Arts.

He said that when he finished his talk at the middle school, “I asked them again, ‘how many of you care?’ I saw a sea of hands, so it [evidence of caring} does work.”

Lewis has been awarded a number of honors for his book illustrations, among them the Caldecott and Coretta Scott King Illustrator awards. His current work involves painting a series of “Lotto Icons,” a series of small paintings of impoverished children painted on partially scratched off lottery tickets. The message: “If we scratch our children as much as we scratch the tickets we will find our treasure.”

Lewis has given a number of readings and book-signings for NIM in the past year, and after the program ended he signed books for the many fans young and old who gathered around his table in an upstairs room.

Among those in attendance were three current and former executive directors of NIM executive directors: former directors Rev. Richard Fermandez and Rabbi George Stern, and current interim director Bessie Jordan-Byrd. Between them they have directed the organization for almost all its 43-year history. After a decade as executive director Stern stepped down last fall and was succeeded on a temporary basis by then-board chair Jordan-Byrd while the board began a search for a permanent replacement.

When asked after the program how the search was progressing, board chair John Wright said he expected a new director would be named this summer and would be in place when NIM’s programmatic year begins in September. He declined to speculate on whether the individual would be from the local area or outside the city, saying, ‘We’re very encouraged at how the search is going … we’ve had interest from here and afar. It’s great to see the interest in being in Philadelphia.”

For more information about NIM call 215-843-5600.

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