- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 10, 2001

Tom Lewis easily recalls the hours he whiled away on the river banks in Elizabethtown, N.C., trying to catch a fish. No matter how hard he tried, the fish gave him the slip. All he was doing was making bubbles with his leaded bobber every time he cast, he says.
Time went by and he started to feel as though his whole life was just as useless.
He dropped out of high school and traveled the highways from Florida to New York picking bushels of oranges, green beans and apples as a migrant worker.
"At the time, I didnt have any real dreams. Whatever I did would be an honest living. And whatever I did, I wanted the Lord to approve of it," Mr. Lewis says.
Then, at 26, Mr. Lewis found something he was good at — being a policeman and working with youngsters. He was assigned the task of going into District schools as part of the Officer Friendly program to dispel distortions about the police and highlight the positive the ways in which police help children and adults, Mr. Lewis says.
"I saw so many children all over the District, primarily in elementary and junior high, coming to school cold and dirty and they would want to shake my hand and be their daddy," Mr. Lewis says.
"It broke my heart. … I promised the Lord if I could live to retire I would do something about it," says Mr. Lewis, who has three children of his own.
Mr. Lewis, now 61, worked on the force for 21 years and retired in 1986.
Since 1990, the promise he made has enriched the lives of countless children through Mr. Lewis Fishing School, a youth program and sanctuary on Wylie Street in Northeast. A second school opened a few years ago on Meade Street in Northeast, and Mr. Lewis also founded a Fishing School in his birthplace of Chadbourn, N.C., thats run by his cousin.
The schools are not about tackle or bait or rods. The Fishing School is a metaphor for fishing in the mind casting out and reeling in achievement, excellence and success.
Its based on the adage, "If you give a man a fish, youll feed him for a day. Teach him to fish, and he will feed himself for a lifetime."
Most of the 35 rambunctious children who file through the schools doors around 3:30 p.m. weekdays live on Wylie Street or around the blighted H Street corridor.
The free, faith-based after-school program is open to anyone interested. It emphasizes reading, foreign languages that include Spanish and most recently Latin, mathematics and computer skills. Field trips to museums and theatrical performances are included to expose the children to the arts, Mr. Lewis says.
The pint-size people and teen-agers mostly ages 6 to 15 get an assist with their homework assignments from volunteers, and also have a variety of sports they can play, including football, basketball and double dutch. Before leaving the Fishing Schools two-story brick row house in the evenings, theyre treated to a hot, nutritious meal.
"We start the program with inspirational prayer or singing. We try to set the tone," Mr. Lewis says. Its not unusual to see words like "obedience" or a biblical passage written on the blackboard at the Fishing School.
Theres also a summer enrichment program beginning in June. Homework may be over for the summer, but the focus on education remains the same, Mr. Lewis says. He asks $50 per family for the summer months, if possible.
"Money isnt a must. The pay is respect. All of us are a work in progress," Mr. Lewis says.
His method works. Success speaks for itself. Just ask Caryl Dawkins, a Fishing School alum and one of the first youngsters to join it some 12 years ago. Ms. Dawkins, 21, helped Mr. Lewis carry boxes into the house when he first arrived on the narrow street.
Next month, Ms. Dawkins will become the programs first college graduate when she receives her bachelors degree in human services from Lincoln University near Philadelphia, whose alumni includes Langston Hughes and Thurgood Marshall.
"The Fishing School had a definite impact on me. … I looked at it as a refuge. When I came in 1989, Mr. Lewis talked to me and my friends and I saw his interest in all of us," she says.
Like Ms. Dawkins, James Huff gives Mr. Lewis reason to smile. Another Fishing School alum, Mr. Huff graduated from the D.C. Police Academy last month and is stationed at the 7th District on Alabama Avenue in Southeast.
Mr. Huff, 22, started going to the school at age 13 and hes still stopping by to lend a hand whenever he can. The school is located down the street from his grandmothers home.
Mr. Huffs interest included the sports activities and arts and crafts. He credits Mr. Lewis for stepping up to the plate when nobody else would.
"Nobody else seemed as if they were interested in helping the young people who lived on the street who were not trying to get into trouble," Mr. Huff says of Mr. Lewis leadership.
"Id go right after school and stay until it closed in the evenings. My grades improved, especially in math a subject I needed help in and my grade improved," he says.

The school is chock-full of folks to look to for guidance and support, Mr. Huff says.
"All of the volunteers serve as role models. Everybody there tries to put young people on the right path. Theres no negativity inside the Fishing School," he says. Nothings changed since his days as a youth there.
The program has 25 volunteers and seven paid staff members.
Peter Folger volunteers four days a week. Hes been on board for three weeks. He hopes to attend graduate school sometime in the future, and hes leaning toward a degree in social work. He says his experience at the Fishing School is invaluable for a couple of reasons. As far as hes concerned its a win-win situation.
"Ive done some volunteer work at nonfaith-based organizations, but now that Ive been here I really see it as an integral part for the kids. Spirituality is a part of all of us. Now, I feel any program that does not address it is missing something," Mr. Folger, 37, says.
"Im really happy with my experience with the faith-based aspect of this program. Its a good learning experience for me. Where the children are concerned, like other kids, they have many needs that arent completely being met at school or in the homes. Kids want positive attention and sometimes they dont get it because there just arent enough adults," he says.
Mr. Folger is involved with the programs Little League team.
"Its a good place, and I often think I get just as much out of it as the children," he says, smiling.
More than seven years ago, Madeline Neal was asked by her pastor, Russell Weaver, of His Church in Southeast to give Mr. Lewis a hand. Help him, help others. Ms. Neal gladly took up the mantle as cook, tutor and Bible instructor.
"… I stay because I enjoy what I do. This is a place where the children are introduced to new experiences and people. It helps the kids grow up with self-esteem. And, it just takes one popular child and the rest follow," Ms. Neal says before announcing outdoor playtime in the Fishing Schools gated playground area.
Yes, Mr. Lewis says he has been urged to relocate to a nicer neighborhood,but hes decided to stay put. He likens Wylie Street to the biblical story of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead.
"Over here on Wylie Street its like a tomb dead people walking around and talking. People cant go any place because there are stones. Stones of neglect, child abuse and alcoholism," says Mr. Lewis, who lives in Northwest.
"We here at the Fishing School are trying to roll the stones away," he says.
For more information about the Fishing School, go to its Web site, www.fishingschool.org, or call 202/399-3618.

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