Deedee Mills is climbing mountains and helping kids along the way

Deedee Mills didn’t know anything about climbing mountains, but that didn’t keep her from reaching the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.

She says she didn’t know much about running nonprofits or owning restaurants, but she’s doing both.

After 17 years in the Carolina Panthers’ communications department, she left and started the nonprofit Behailu Academy in 2011 to provide arts instruction – and a sense of community – for children who need it most.

When one of her friends asked her to climb Kilimanjaro with her for her 40th birthday, Mills asked if they could go to Las Vegas instead. (“I don’t even want to hike Crowders Mountain again,” she says, laughing.) But she is interested in new experiences.

During the eight-day climb, many of her fellow adventurers discussed the next mountain they would conquer. Mills, 41, wasn’t interested in another summit. She had in mind her next metaphorical mountain, though. That turned out to be a fine-dining restaurant to accompany her food truck, the Mayobird, and the casual breakfast and lunch spot of the same name she was planning.

She made the leap from food truck owner to running a restaurant on East Boulevard where Caribou Coffee and Bruegger’s Bagels had been. Mills, who lives in Dilworth, wanted to create a neighborhood gathering place.

Her small-town upbringing gave her an appreciation of hospitality and a love of good food. Life in her Eastern North Carolina hometown of Williamston centered on food served at church homecomings and family weddings.

“The idea of food and community,” she says, “that’s what drew me to the restaurant business.”

Intersection of sports and art

Mills, a daughter of a coach, loves sports. She majored in exercise and sports science at UNC Chapel Hill and did an internship with the Panthers before getting hired full-time right out of college.

She served on the board of the Harvest Center, a nonprofit that works to end homelessness. The work had a profound impact on her.

In 2006, Mills asked the Harvest Center staff if there was a child who could use something special around the holidays. They introduced her to Bobby, 12, who joined her at the Panthers’ holiday party. The pair became what Mills calls an “unofficial big sister/little brother.” They stayed in touch for six years while Bobby was in and out of foster homes, left school, fathered a child and went to jail. He also joined a gang. Mills says, “I understand. He was looking for a family.”

“I had dreams for him,” she says. She wanted to be at his high school graduation and eventually his college graduation. None of that would happen. But she didn’t let her disappointment destroy her desire to help. Or to become a mom.

Finding Behailu

On a 2007 mission trip to Ethiopia, she was touched by the motherless children she encountered. “Once I went to Ethiopia, I couldn’t plead ignorance anymore,” she says. She began the adoption process and met her son, whom orphanage staffers had named “Behailu” – meaning “strength overcame obstacles” – in December 2008.

Her friend, Christa Muhammad, wife of former Panthers wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad, went with her on the trip. The Muhammads had also adopted two children from Ethiopia.

Mills gave her son her grandmother’s maiden name – Cannon – as his first name and kept Behailu as his middle name. “I wanted him to have something from Africa,” she says. “I want him to know and be proud of where he was born.”

And she gave her son’s name – with its hopeful meaning – to the after-school arts program she started. The sports fan wanted to create a haven for kids who might seek family in a gang.

There are plenty of youth sports teams, she says: “But what if your kid isn’t an athlete?”

Behailu provides after-school arts enrichment for students in some of Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s Title I schools. Around 50 children from Eastway Middle, Cochrane Middle and Garinger High are enrolled. “When school budget cuts happened in about 2008, arts and music were the first things to go,” Mills says. “But art provides a way to talk without talking.”

The Behailu kids have many ways to express themselves; the curriculum includes cooking, spoken word and drama (another of Mills’ passions) in addition to painting.

“It’s a total immersion that teaches kids discipline, self-esteem and confidence,” says James Ford, a world history teacher at Garinger who is 2014-15 N.C. Teacher of the Year. “Behailu gives these kids – my kids – a shot. And everyone deserves a shot. Seeing what some of these introverted kids become is like watching a bird fly.”

“This is a safe place,” Mills says of the academy on East 36th Street in NoDa. “We want kids to feel comfortable, loved and – just as importantly – held accountable.” (She regards her restaurant staff the same way. She says she wants them to be a “functional family.”)

God ‘equips the called’

But how did she know how to start a nonprofit? She didn’t, she insists. “I don’t think God calls the equipped. He equips the called. I didn’t know how to start Behailu. But I thought, if I just started it, I’d find people who knew what they were doing.”

She did. Behailu executive director Lori Krzeszewski, a former teacher, says: “Deedee trusts me to do what’s best for our kids. I sometimes felt confined (by limitations) at CMS. Now, if we see a crisis situation, we can intervene immediately. We’re a safety net for these families struggling with abuse and addiction.”

When it came to running a restaurant, Mills found an expert, too. She met Bo McDonald, a 30-year veteran of the restaurant industry, when she was renting commercial kitchen space for her food truck. McDonald had moved back to the area from Hilton Head Island, S.C., and was contemplating his next career move.

“I started helping her – giving her unasked-for advice,” he says. “We became fast friends. I tried hard not to get back into restaurant operations. But as I got to know Deedee and see how she lives her life, I wanted to be part of what she was doing.”

“I had never done this before,” he says of working for a business designed to help sustain a nonprofit. “In the past, my jobs were always about the bottom line. But Deedee walks the talk. We have put our faith in God and in this community.”

One step at a time

Mills’ journey has taken her from one of the highest points in the world to down in the trenches. She’s at Behailu a few days a week, and when she’s at Mayobird, she helps out in the kitchen.

She has never developed a plan to get her from Point A to B. “There was no looking ahead (on summit day),” she says. “There was no looking behind. It’s just one step at a time.”

And she applies the philosophy to life. “If something seems unattainable, you might not even set out to try. But if you do it in little steps – you do this, you do this and then you do the next thing – suddenly, you’re doing it.”

Mayobird and the Summit Room are about second chances – and that’s right down to the reclaimed wood used in the interior (some from an old tobacco barn; some from a John Deere store back home) and the urban/country decor. “That table,” Mills says pointing, “was in someone’s dining room or kitchen. They communed around that table. I like giving it new life.”