Vice President for Programs, The Boston Foundation
Founder, Boston Astros
If there is such a thing as destiny, then you might say that Robert Lewis, Jr., was destined for a life of public service. After all, he grew up as what he calls a "public kid." "I was born in a public hospital, grew up in public housing, attended public schools, took public transportation to get to school—and my family received public assistance," he says. "All of these factors, which could have led to failure, instead spelled success for me, because I never knew this thing called 'poverty.' Poor was a state of mind. I had a mom who taught us to love, accept, and appreciate everything we had."
When he was 16 years old, his family moved from the deep South to East Boston, Massachusetts—a move that coincided with a turbulent time in the city's history: the court-appointed desegregation of the Boston public schools in the mid-1970s. When they first moved in, his was the only black family in the Maverick public housing development, and at the public high school he attended, there were only 50 young people of color out of
a student population of 1,400.
Robert easily could have succumbed to the negativity and tension of the time—which, for many of the youths around him, manifested in thrown stones, tipped buses, and firebombs. Robert and his family themselves were victims of the unrest when the homes of the 40-plus black families who then lived at Maverick were firebombed, and they were forced to move.
But Robert's mother raised him from a young age to accept and appreciate life under all its circumstances—so instead, Robert considered his experience a valuable life lesson. "There were police there every day, and buses being tipped over. I lived this, I saw the rocks, I saw the buses. Hard as it was, it was also an education in race relations and social change," he says.
The family relocated to the Villa Victoria housing development in Boston's South End. It was there that he began a long and storied career of helping inner-city youths. At just 21 years old, he was hired to the newly created position of Youth Manager for Inquilinos Boricuas en Accion (IBA), the organization that managed the housing development in which he lived.
Going to bat for kids
It was through this job that Robert made a lasting impact on his South End neighborhood. In 1978, baseball was a way of keeping kids off the streets by putting them onto baseball fields. It was that year that Robert co-founded The Boston Astros at Villa Victoria, as a way to give kids from the development a healthy athletic outlet, while also instilling the values of teamwork, sportsmanship, dedication, and hard work.
More than just an athletic team, The Boston Astros organization is committed to offering positive life choices to these young players by offering counseling, support, and mentoring to the young people and their families. Free to boys and girls from neighborhoods throughout Boston, the team asks only that students give back through community service.
From the start, the Astros were no mere pick-up baseball team. Under Robert's leadership, it quickly became one of the nation's elite amateur clubs. Over the years, the team has competed at local, regional, and national levels, playing teams up and down the East Coast, as well as teams from Canada, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico—and even Japan, where the team was hailed in print and radio as a model American baseball program.
To date, the Astros have served thousands of boys and girls on more than 300 teams. Many of these kids have gone on to become professionals, including former Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Manny Delcarmen. Other alumni now play ball at the college level. Perhaps even more importantly, 75% of Astros players have gone to college after graduating high school, and 100% have participated in community service.
A new life calling: Calling it safe for young people
Robert has continued to serve the young people of Boston throughout his adult life, through such community and nonprofit organizations as Boston Housing Authority, City Year, the National Conference for Community and Justice, and the Boston Centers for Youth and Family.
Today, Robert serves as the Vice President for Programs at The Boston Foundation, an ambitious community foundation that funds numerous initiatives—among them a program called StreetSafe, which Robert personally oversees. StreetSafe aims to combat gang violence by deploying street workers—many of them former gang members themselves—to reach out to the young residents of Boston's most dangerous neighborhoods.
For the past two years, Grand Circle Foundation Chairman and Grand Circle Corporation Chairman Harriet and Alan Lewis (no relation) have worked closely with Robert on the StreetSafe program. "I value leadership and moral courage," says Alan, "and Robert is a role model of these traits. He is the real deal … an outstanding agent for change on behalf of young people." The Lewises invited Robert to join the Foundation's Community Advisory Group, where he interacts with other leaders of nonprofit organizations supported by the Foundation, to solve problems that are common to all of them, such as fundraising and board development.
But wherever his career has taken him, Robert has always remained a mainstay of The Boson Astros organization. For his 30 years of service with the group, Robert received a special award on the season's opening night in 2009. Presented by Paul Epstein, brother of Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein, and Mark Frevert, Executive Vice President of Grand Circle Foundation, a principal team sponsor, the award celebrates his 30 years of dedicated service to the Boston Astros. Upon receiving it, Robert modestly said, "Since the beginning it was about the kids, and it has been about the kids for 30 years. I feel honored and thankful for being part of this, and you are all witnesses to one of the best programs in the country and one of the best teams in the nation."
The Boston Astros lived up to this superlative yet again in the summer of 2010, as the team completed and won the Triple Crown Sports United States Baseball Championship in Richmond, VA.
Surely the team could not have made these amazing accomplishments without the gutsy leadership of a true winner.
Featured in our February 2011 E-Newsletter. Read the full issue here.