The Rev. John Phelps learned an early life lesson that helped inspire the founding of Life Directions, a nonprofit organization in Detroit that pairs at-risk teens and young adults with peers who have experienced their own share of trouble.
“After I arrived in Detroit (in 1973), literally the first day I was at Holy Redeemer (in southwest Detroit), a 15-year-old boy was killed by another teen, and I knew it wouldn’t be long until it would be 11-year-olds killing one another, and then, after that, 7-year-olds,” says Phelps, president and CEO of Life Directions, which he co-founded with four Detroit residents.
“What I learned from my dad is that we can’t leave people behind, because then there will be trouble. I remember playing baseball at a young age, and we were up 20-2, and then the young kids went in halfway through the game and we wound up losing 40-20. I was devastated. But then my dad said to everyone: ‘We won’t start winning until the younger kids learn to play baseball, so let’s teach him.’ ”
Over the last four decades, Phelps, along with a small staff and an army of volunteers, has expanded Life Directions throughout Detroit to other cities to ensure “students don’t lose the game of life.”
Last year, the organization provided enrichment and peer motivation programs to 1,100 teens and adults via community service projects, leadership training, and team-building exercises. The goal is to expand the program — a self-funded operation — across Detroit.
“We pair our young people who have dropped out of school or who are struggling for one reason or another with older peers who have gone through similar adversity,” Phelps says. “With more corporate donations, more people will have access to good jobs.”