Brent Morris did the unthinkable, considering the nation’s economy is still struggling.
He quit his six-figure job as a management consultant in April, not for a better-paying job, but for one that pays nothing at all.
Morris, who is a husband and father of three, decided it was time to help the less fortunate, so he started doing pro bono work for a charity that ranks among Mecklenburg County’s smallest.
In fact, it’s safe to say that most people have never heard of the Learning Help Centers of Charlotte, which has a budget of about $20,000.
But Morris, 47, says it’s the charity’s mission that hooked him.
The LHCC is a mentoring and tutoring program that has lately reached out to kids in the communities along South Boulevard and Central Avenue, where immigrants and refugees are in the majority.
Morris is himself an immigrant – a native South African who has been in Charlotte for just seven years – and he knows the struggle and uncertain future such kids face, even if they don’t yet know it themselves.
“My heart is for the children,” he says, “whether born here or not, because they are innocent of any and all charges, regardless of the legal status of their parents. These folks deserve a brighter future, given their sacrifices and risks taken, just as we Americans dream and pray about for our own children.”
Many Americans agree with him. Few would quit their jobs to help them, however.
Morris, who now holds U.S. citizenship, admits it wasn’t easy to do, having been one of two kids raised in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, by a single mom who struggled to pay the bills.
He says he thought about it for six months and then began paying off all his debts, including the family home.
“Yes, people said, ‘You’re crazy,’ but others were very encouraging,” he says. “I just felt this was a calling, something that had to be done for a higher purpose.”
He got his wife and children on board first. The kids – ages 14, 11 and 6 – had mixed reactions, but he says his wife, Caren, “backed the idea 100 percent.”
‘God was leading the way’
That’s not an exaggeration. Caren Morris says her big concern was making sure they were financially ready when he settled on which charity to help.
“This is a journey the two of us were embarking on, and God was leading the way,” she says, adding that this kind of vocation runs in her husband’s family. “They are pastors and ministers on his side of the family. He didn’t take that step, but it’s part of his own path.”
The two married just two weeks before he immigrated to the United States in 1991, intending to work in accounting and auditing. However, he said, he found it hard to find work as an accountant, so he launched into a successful 12-year career as a management consultant.
The couple homeschooled their children, with Caren handling the arts and literature and Brent covering the math.
Morris says it was at his church, Forest Hill, that he first heard of the Learning Help Centers and its leader, Jeff Park, who spent 10 years leading ministry programs for Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s PTL operation in Fort Mill, S.C.
A young program
The Learning Help Centers started only last year, but the 67-year-old Park traces its origin to a 2010 Nexus Urban Serve program in the Pressley Ridge Apartments.
Park says he was involved in that program, and it inspired him to start a nonprofit that recruits congregations to sponsor children’s programs in apartment complexes where immigrant and refugee families are in the majority.
There are 70 such apartment communities in Charlotte, he says, most of them along Central Avenue and South Boulevard. Park says he has so far succeeded in launching five programs in apartment communities with partner churches.
His goal is to start four more by the end 2014.
Brent Morris and his family are essentially doing all the things Park can’t afford to pay someone to do. This includes everything from website development to being assistant swim instructor for the charity’s summer camp. “He is a godsend,” Park says. “I appreciate him very much for his courage.”
Coincidentally, Park was one of the people who warned Morris that quitting a job to follow a calling would be daunting. That’s because Park did it himself four decades ago, when he left his job as a chemical engineer to enter the ministry. Others have done it in Charlotte as well, including former banker Stephen Smith, who recently took over the nonprofit Charlotte Family Housing.
No one at the Learning Help Centers is paid a salary. Park says he’d eventually like to pay Morris. But Morris says they first must find a way to make the centers financially viable.
Once an accountant, always an accountant.
Still, he says, there have been many moments when he realized he’d made the right decision, including a day in July, when a grateful immigrant family invited the Morris family into their small home for a meal of burritos and tacos.
It’s was clear they were of limited means, he says, but the family took great joy in sharing what little they had.
“They sat us down at their table and fed us a feast, and it was humbling,” he says. “I have been at this for four months, and I can tell you it is no picnic. But I’m not going back to the corporate world unless God tells me I made a mistake.”