By Renee Corwine | Photography by Sherod Mann
The mission of the I Am King Foundation is a simple one: “Inspiring boys to be men, identifying the king within.” The work itself – mentoring dozens of young men daily, plus hosting monthly activities and annual camps – is far more complicated.
However, I Am King’s founder and executive director JacQuez Harris wouldn’t have it any other way.
“If you would have asked me 10 years ago, I would never have imagined being the founder and director of a nonprofit, especially for children,” said Harris, 31. “But my job is what I love to do. I never would have imagined it, but I love what I do.”
Growing up in the church, Harris said he always has had a close relationship with God, and one day, early in the morning hours of New Year’s Day 2016, Harris said God directed him to host a boys’ camp on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Not really knowing how he’d pull it together in 18 days – or how impactful it would be on him and 92 young men – he called friends and family, rented a room at the Tubman Museum and made it happen. The boys ate breakfast, went on a King Day march, attended a church service and more.
“It was a really good day,” he said.
A bigger impact
Harris returned home and prayed about the matter, and said God directed him to host another camp in July, and so he did. Since then, I Am King has blossomed into a nonprofit foundation that serves young men ages 5-18 through biannual camps, monthly outings and daily mentorship.
Their primary work is teaching young men lessons they wouldn’t necessarily learn in school.
“We educate them on things like how to tie a tie, how to formally shake hands, how to look someone confidently in the eye – things that men are known for traditionally and have faded away over the years,” Harris said. “We teach them how to dress in professional settings, how to act in church, how to speak in public, how to talk to other men, how to properly say your name without hesitation or stuttering – it’s a confidence builder.
“This program sets the standard of what males should be. And our biggest goal is to make sure this program is not identified as a program just for black males; it’s not. It’s a program for all males.”
During the camps, the young “kings” attend sessions on topics such as etiquette, prayer, table manners, financial literary, how to interact with law enforcement and general math and reading tutoring.
For the 20 or so boys in the program year-round, I Am King volunteers serve as mentors and tutors, taking the boys on monthly trips to the movies, museums, theatrical productions and other cultural events.
“We talk to kids individually and find out what their goals are. We want to meet children where they are, and find out how we can advance them. All boys don’t like football and basketball or piano and theater, so we want to identify what they do like and expose them to it,” Harris said. “We want them to say, ‘I remember when I Am King took us to the Grand Opera House, and I knew then that’s what I wanted to do in life.’ We need success stories.”
One of those success stories is Russell Hill, a freshmen majoring in exercise science at Georgia Southern University. He became part of I Am King during his 11th grade year in high school.
“That summer we went to Lake Oconee, with kids from other schools participating in I Am King. We did a lot of bonding and focused on college readiness, applying for scholarships, financial aid, and all that,” Hill said. “In my 12th grade year, Mr. Harris was at my school almost every day making sure we were doing good in our classes. He helped me a lot, made sure I was on track and doing what I needed to do to graduate. Now, Mr. Harris still calls me to check on me. He keeps in touch with all of us, in different colleges all over Georgia.”
It’s a little easier for Harris to keep up with the kings attending Fort Valley State University, where Harris is also a student, working on his bachelor’s in organizational leadership. While working full time for I Am King, Harris also works part time for Bibb County, serving as a college alumni mentor for graduates of Bibb County schools now enrolled at FVSU.
Mentoring through generations
Following a mentorship role is something Harris learned from his own mentor, Dominique Johnson.
“He’s been my mentor for 17 years. He’s the voice that says, ‘I know you’re tired, just do the work,’” said Harris, who’s also a graduate of Johnson’s Urban Leadership Academy. “Dominique is on the advisory board of I Am King, and is very influential in the decisions we make.”
The foundation’s board of directors consists of role models, business men and leaders from across Middle Georgia. It also includes a woman. Brandi Mann handles marketing for the foundation and said that as a wife and mother of two young boys, she has a vested interest in the organization.
“What I see through my lens is very disheartening … many of these boys do come from single-parent households,” she said. “My touch on what I do is a nurturing one, it’s motherly. Men can give them what they need to become young men, I can give them the nourishing that mothers provide.”
While Mann is a voice of motherly love for the young men in the program, Harris said that for many of them, he’s a father figure – one they desperately need.
“Mentorship is 24/7 year-round. They Facetime and text message me all day,” he said. “Through that constant contact, we’re building trust, loyalty and consistency. Most of the boys just need a male figure that they can confide in. … Those boys need a confidant in a real life, a human being they can see, touch and interact with. I want to physically be there so they can watch my emotions and hear my voice, because I know from experience how important that is.”
“I know what it feels like to grow up in single-parent household. My mom was a great provider, and my dad was part of my life, but I had no personal relationship with either of them. Now, in my 30s I’m just beginning to develop a strong relationship with my dad. Knowing that I didn’t have that male figure in my home, I couldn’t imagine another generation behind me going through that same thing.”
Hill would agree, as Harris helped fill that father-figure role in his life.
“Mr. Harris is a great person, a real father figure in my life; he’s always there. And we have some little kings that he’s there for now, too.”
The work being done by I Am King, as it reaches a younger generation of boys, is creating a legacy of mentorship. What started with Johnson’s influence on Harris led to Harris’ mentorship of Hill. And now, Hill is serving in a “big brother” role himself.
“There are two boys I ‘big brother’ with, they are in kindergarten and second grade,” Hill said. “It’s a big circle of love. I Am King is nothing but helping hands, willingness and opportunity, and all you have to do is reach out and grab it.”
How to help
Harris said the foundation is always in need of volunteers and donations.
“We need consistent donors, people we can count on for the funds, so that we know we have that money and can allocate it,” he said. “We welcome donations of cultural event tickets, or groups that are willing to host events for us, like having a lock-in for us at your church. When we have camp, we need sponsors for meals and volunteers.”
Mann had a different suggestion: They need help reaching more young men.
“If you see kids who need guidance and you can’t provide that guidance, send them to us,” she said. “Financial donations are great, but the it’s the kings we can’t see – the ones you may see in your churches, schools and communities – we want to reach them because we want to help them.”
Learn more about I Am King and its upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. Day camp by following the group on Facebook, or by calling 478-550-7513.