SHAUNTAY NEDD STUDIES A FIVE-INCH worm squirming in a plastic carton and scrunches up her nose. “Yuck,” says the 7-year-old, clutching her fishing pole, “I don’t want to put the worm on.” Tom Lewis, 57, nods in sympathy. “These are the biggest worms I’ve ever seen,” says the retired Washington policeman, struggling to bait her hook. Then Shauntay casts the lure into the Potomac River. She never does catch a fish but, says Lewis, that isn’t the reason he brings needy D.C.-area children—about 40 this time, aged 5 to 15—to the river. The lesson is about patience in life. As with fishing, he says, “it takes time and patience to wait for good things to happen.”
In a neighborhood where broken homes, drug use and hopelessness are common, and patience is not, the ex-cop has fashioned an oasis—one that values family, knowledge, hope and self-esteem. Seven years ago, at his own expense, he refurbished a rowhouse to accommodate a nonprofit outreach program in which 25 to 65 children are tutored by volunteers in subjects ranging from ballet and poetry to computer skills. He named it the Fishing School after the old adage “Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, he’ll feed himself for a lifetime.”
That philosophy defines Lewis, who overcame considerable hardship himself. Born in Chadbourn, N.C., he was the sixth of 15 children. His mother, Martha, picked cotton, and his father, Gaston, worked in a sawmill. “By the time most of us were teenagers, we’d all left home because times were hard and there was no real support,” says Lewis. But he never lost touch with his family, providing them with emotional and often financial help. Ed Lewis, 50, his younger brother—also a retired Washington policeman—recalls that Tom “was always, always the guy to make sure the family stood together.”
Lewis dropped out of school after 10th grade, becoming a migrant farm laborer, then an Army grunt and a postal worker before he joined the D.C. police force in 1965. After walking a beat for three years, he transferred to community relations. Assigned to speak at schools, he was shaken by the poverty and desperation he saw. “I never saw so many filthy, dirty children coming to school in the morning,” he says. “I stepped out of many classrooms with tears in my eyes.”
Lewis swore then that he would retire after 20 years and live off his pension while helping those in need. On Valentine’s Day 1986, he made good on that promise: “I retired on a Friday, and Monday I started working at the largest halfway house in D.C,” counseling newly released prisoners.
But for him that wasn’t enough. While praying one Sunday in 1989, he was struck by an idea. He decided to convert a rental property he’d bought in Northeast D.C. into a family service center. ” ‘What do you expect to get out of this?’ ” Lewis says his doubting neighbors asked. “I’d say, ‘I expect to see men take care of their children, women nurture their daughters. I expect to see children learn how to have more self-respect.’ ”
His wife, Lucille, 53, who owns a tailor shop, was also skeptical at first. With three children (Jason, now 28 and a barber, Patrick, 27, a mailman, and Tisha, 24, an ad saleswoman), she was concerned about family finances. “But then I realized that this was something he truly wanted to do, and I made peace with myself,” she says. Still, she worries that her husband, who suffers from diabetes, works too hard.
Since its opening in 1990, the school has gradually added volunteers (it now has 20) and, with backing from the United Way and individual donations, has increased its annual budget to $71,000. In summer, daylong activities begin with group motivational sessions, followed by field trips, arts-and-crafts projects and gardening. During the school year, children arrive after school for Bible study, a hot meal and tutoring. Deborah Rankin, 42, a D.C. schoolteacher and volunteer says, “[He] gives kids a place to go where they’ll really learn something, where they learn to care for each other.”
Lewis’s “graduates” echo that praise. Natalie Preston, 17, the first of his kids to finish high school, hopes to become the first in her family to graduate college. “I’m going to be a lawyer,” she says. Cyrus Neal, 14, who was tutored in writing at the Fishing School and recently won an $8,000 college scholarship for his poetry, says, “I came to meet girls. After a while, I don’t know what happened, I started to want to come.” It wasn’t just his instructor—or the girls—who won him over. It was Lewis. “I could see he really cared,” says Cyrus. “He really loves us.”
MARY ESSELMAN and ERICKA SOUTER in Washington