The enduring love, mission, and greater purpose of Minister Tom Lewis ('97)
April 8, 2021
If you take a look down Wylie Street NE in DC today, you will find 2-bedroom rowhouses selling for close to a million dollars. But in 1990, many of those same houses were still burned or damaged from the 1968 riots. Minister Tom Lewis (’97) saw potential on that street no one else could.
The 1990s were a tough time in the city. The crack epidemic had reached most of the neighborhoods east of Massachusetts Avenue. Lewis knew the problems well. He had spent over 20 years on the DC police force. While still a policeman, he studied at American University and became a licensed social worker. He was also ordained as a Minister.
There was an inner voice that was calling him to follow a new purpose, and it was becoming clearer by the day. At the time, he had scraped together $1,100 in savings. His wife Lucille ran a small tailoring shop on Georgia Avenue, and she agreed to give him an extra $1,000 for an investment. They planned to buy one of the houses on Wylie and fix it up as a rental property to supplement their retirement income.
But fortunately for generations of DC kids, Tom decided to scrap that plan and follow the persistent voice that was telling him to find a greater purpose. He decided to take that house and create a haven for kids in DC to help advance their education. It would be called The Fishing School. The concept was based on the Bible verse Matthew 4:19, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”
He had to jump through a lot of hoops just to buy the house. Getting the mortgage on the building, to begin with, was a challenge. Banks were hesitant to make the loan. He leaned on his faith community and his friends for seed money. He started telling people stories about the kids out on Wylie. He saw kids growing up in poverty, like he had, hungry for opportunity, searching for guidance. He saw himself in those kids. In 1990 his dream of opening the Fishing School came to fruition.
Six years later, the Fishing School was at a turning point. It had enjoyed early successes, but Minister Lewis was still reaching for much more. In 1996 he was encouraged to participate in Leadership Greater Washington’s Signature Program. He applied and was accepted into the Class of 1997.
On the first day, the Class was asked to form into small groups and identify a civic project to work on together. Tom ended up in a group with fellow leaders John Butler (’97) Vice President, Development and Mission Advancement of Trinity Missions, Jackie Bowens (’97) President and Chief Executive Officer of the District of Columbia Hospital Association and A. Scott Bolden (’97) Managing Partner of Reed Smith LLP. By the time Tom finished telling his story and introducing himself, their group knew that this was the project they would engage on. John, Jackie, and Scott were sharp, ambitious, passionate -- and more than a few years younger than Tom. But he felt at home with them. He could see in their eyes on that first day that they could help him.
Tom was a visionary, a brilliant storyteller - the personification of a selfless leader. But his organization needed more help to reach a new plateau. His board was made up of one-hundred-percent direct service volunteers. He needed to build a new board bench of talented, determined community leaders. He found them in Jackie, John, and Scott.
They brought in a new strategy, implemented program measurement, and created performance metrics. They became the launchpad, the mindtrust, that would help Tom build a fully-fledged non-profit operation. Tom was the voice, the founder, the conscience. He had the passion, but he needed LGW leaders to help with the strategy.
John recalls, “We rolled up our sleeves and joined the board. We were able to focus some of the good work Tom was doing instinctively, to make it clearer for people to understand the mission so the organization could garner support more successfully and strengthen their program.”
Jackie remembers the challenges vividly, “we needed to build clarity around the role of the board, governance, and operations. The volunteer board was struggling to build up the necessary supports. There was natural tension around change. We had to build a consensus on what growth would look like. But we were all very clear about the problems we were trying to solve for the kids.”
The Fishing School was seeking sustainable funding. There was a grant opportunity with Charity Works, then a key player in philanthropy in the DC region. Many members of the leadership team with Charity Works were spouses of major defense contractors. The grant was for $750,000, which in 1997 was landmark funding. Tom and his LGW colleagues gave an initial pitch relying on their story, but Charity Works denied their proposal.
In spite of the rejection, Tom, John, Scott, and Jackie pressed forward. This was too important to shrink away from. Charity Works was looking for a strategy that would demonstrate the long-term impact of their investment.
John remembers, “they needed a more crafted proposal and strategy. We polished the presentation. Power-pointed the whole bit, did a one-two punch with Tom, and won the grant. It helped us build support from a population of individuals the Fishing School had yet to reach.”
They had taken the nuances, the warmth, and the passion of the Fishing School community on Wylie Street and built a blueprint and architecture for sustainable growth. Afterward, successes for the Fishing School multiplied. Each building block led to another.
In 2007, they attracted a new Executive Director, Leo Givs, who leads the school to this day. John remembers when Leo came on board. “Tom’s heart was in loving the kids and promoting the mission. His skills were in telling the story. The organization needed a Leo Givs to focus on the programs, operations, and development sides.”
Tom, Leo, and the team at the Fishing School had a milestone breakthrough in 2009. Their work attracted the attention of ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. The show brought together volunteers, corporate sponsors, and celebrity guest Tyler Perry to demolish a building and build a new one in seven days. The house they built for the Fishing School became known as “The Big Blue House.”
Jackie, who is a longtime major donor and went on to serve as Board Chair for the Fishing School, noted that this victory was particularly special for her.
“I remember when the Extreme Makeover bus came, it was quite the adventure. We were surrounded by so many friends; it was the culmination of years of leveraging our collective relationships and engagement. We would not have had that chance to be a part of this success were it not for the partnership we built with Tom through LGW.”
It was there in the beautiful blue house that Tom, Leo, and the rest of the team would build an impeccably structured, research-based academic program evaluated by third parties, that has since become a national model for excellence. They built a powerhouse STEM curriculum that incorporates social and emotional learning, and wraparound services that support the whole family.
Tom’s dream had ignited inspiration in the hearts of millions. Leo remembers of Tom, “he is one of a kind. He is unique in how he loved people. He sacrificed his well-being to serve others. He worked for many years without even taking a salary. He never talked about the difficulties he had to overcome. He operated with integrity. I never saw him falter.”
Minister Tom Lewis (’97) passed away on February 23, 2021. Since 1990, the Fishing School has reached over 7,000 youth and their families. More than 400 DC students enroll in the program each year. The enduring love, mission, and greater purpose of Minister Lewis and the Fishing School continues today.
To learn more about the Fishing School please visit: https://www.fishingschool.org/
At the request of the Lewis family, donations in honor of Thomas and Lucille Lewis can be made to the Fishing School.