Charlottean J.D. Lewis and his two sons are leaving for an out-of-town trip in July. But it won’t be a typical outing to the beach or mountains for some family fun and recreation. Instead, in what can best be described as an odyssey, the trio will over the course of a year travel to 12 different countries, where they’ll perform volunteer and humanitarian work. “What started as this little seed of an idea has turned into something remarkable,” says Lewis. The seed was first planted by Jackson Lewis, J.D.’s 13-year-old son. It was last fall, and Jackson arrived home from school one day and asked his dad a simple question: Why aren’t we doing more to make a difference in the world? “My first response was, ‘Who are you and what have you done with my son?’” J.D laughs. But the question struck a chord with J.D. Why [ital]weren’t they doing more? The three of them, including Jackson’s 8-year-old brother, Buck, had lived a relatively privileged if unorthodox life. Surely they could do more to give back. That night they discussed different ways they could help others, including perhaps volunteering at a soup kitchen. But when J.D. went to bed that night, he started thinking bigger than that, and that’s when he came up the idea of taking his sons all over the world to offer their help where it was needed the most. ”It was a defining moment in my life,” J.D. says. “It was an opportunity to teach my kids that when you have a brilliant idea and act on it, really cool things can happen.”
From L.A. to Charlotte The upcoming trip will be just one of many out-of-the ordinary experiences the Lewis family has shared. J.D. and his two sons moved to Charlotte from Los Angeles about four years ago. J.D. spent most of his career in California working as an actor, and appeared on shows such as “Friends,” “ER” and “Suddenly Susan,” as well as hundreds of commercials. He also founded The Actor’s Lab in Los Angeles in 1990, and has taught acting to hundreds of people. But he says his biggest accomplishment has been raising his two sons, both adopted at birth. “At the time it was pretty rare for a single guy to adopt kids,” he says. “But I really wanted to be a parent.” J.D. said that while raising his two sons he never had a lot of money, but nonetheless they grew up in a very affluent and eclectic environment, hanging out on movie sets and at celebrities’ homes. “But that’s not the truth of life,” says J.D. “It’s like a fairy tale. I wanted my kids to live a place that was honest and the people were real, so we moved to Charlotte.” At first J.D. commuted back to L.A. for work, but then re-launched The Actor’s Lab in Charlotte in 2008, which continues to grow and attract aspiring thespians. And his kids are thriving in Charlotte, he says. Jackson attends the Northwest School of The Arts, where’s he’s focusing on visual arts and band. Buck stays busy with baseball, soccer, swimming, art and building with Legos.
A life-changing experience
After J.D. and his sons decided they would take an entire year and do humanitarian work in 12 countries, J.D. formed the non-profit Twelve in Twelve to help raise funds and turn the dream into a reality. But J.D. still had no idea of how the logistics of such a huge undertaking would work. For help, he called the Peace Corps, and connected with Esther Benjamin, the organization’s associate director of Global Operations. She helped him plan and establish the trip’s itinerary: Russia, India, China, Cambodia, Senegal, Rwanda, Tanzania, Australia, South Georgia Island, Paraguay, Peru, and Haiti. “At every destination there’s a great need, but it’s also safe politically,” J.D. says. “My main concern is for my kids’ welfare. I don’t want to go into a place like Darfur in the middle of a revolution. At each country they’ll focus on a different issue, such as famine, HIV/AIDS, housing, education, child adoption, animal rights, and environmental protection. J.D. says they’ll either stay at the place where they’re doing volunteer work, or at a nearby hostel. The entire trips will cost about $300,000, he says. To cover the costs of the trip, they held a fundraiser at the U.S. National Whitewater Center in April. They also received a grant from the Wells Fargo/Wachovia Foundation, and have several sponsors, including Scholastic, Clif Bar, and Lego, which is shipping their trademark building blocks to different stops along the trip so Buck can hand them out to area kids. The family is also working with Emulsion Arts, a Charlotte film-production company that’s going to document parts of the trip. J.D. said his ultimate goal for Twelve in Twelve is to create an infrastructure and opportunity for other families to volunteer and travel the world to positively impact the global community. “This is going to be a life-changing experience for me and my boys,” J.D says. “We’re literally going out to make the world a better place. Just think if everybody did that.”
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12 in 12
Here’s a sampling of some of the humanitarian works J.D. and his two sons will do during their Twelve in Twelve journey.
Siberia: Work at a baby orphanage in the city of Tomsk.
India: Work at the Shar Gaden Monastery in the city of Hubli and assist the monks who provide care for the kids who reside in the area’s impoverished slums.
Cambodia: Work with an animal rescue organization that cares for former circus elephants that have been mistreated.
Senegal: Work with an organization that provides mosquito nets for residents, which helps cut back on diseases including malaria.
Rwanda: Will teaching a writing workshop and help produce a play at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, a residential community for kids who were orphaned during and after the 1994 genocide.
Tanzania: Teach acting class for kids at the Tanzania Project, a small art school that serves those in need.
Australia: Accompany the Royal Australian Army Ordnance Corps as they drop medical supplies to the Outback’s indigenous people.
Antarctica: Work with science team that helps measure the hole in the ozone.
For more information, and to follow the family’s journey via blog, go to: www.twelveintwelve.info