When Larry Lewis Jr. ’02 started playing football at K-State under Coach Bill Snyder,
he dreamed of one day joining the NFL. To him, the college football experience was
simply the next step on his way to “the league,” serving as an important but temporary
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but Coach Snyder was never preparing us to play in the NFL,” Lewis now reflects. “He was preparing us to be productive, caring and responsible citizens within our communities.”
He now serves as executive director of Growing Futures Early Education Center in Overland Park, Kansas — a career path he credits Coach Snyder for helping him to discover.
Lewis vividly remembers a football team meeting where Coach Snyder told his players it was important to give back to the community. Although Lewis rolled his eyes like many of the other 20-year-olds in the room, he went in search of a volunteer opportunity.
He settled on the Boys & Girls Club of Manhattan, and as he walked through the doors, he said that Barb Allen, then executive director, welcomed him like he was a favorite family member.
“While she stepped away for a call, I walked up to this bright green wall that had the mission written in black, and I read it. I remember reading ‘especially those that need us the most,’ and it took me back to my childhood and understanding that I was a child that needed it the most,” Lewis said. “The mission resonated with me deeply. I thought, ‘I could definitely do this.’”
As he walked around and saw caring adults engaging with children, he turned to Allen and said, “You mean people get paid to play with kids? This is the best job ever!”
Now 22 years later, he is still serving children and families that “need us the most” in his community.
“I owe it to a football coach that suggested we give back,” he said.
Off to a good start
Growing Futures is a nonprofit Early Head Start/Head Start organization providing
early education and support services to children ages 0-5 for the most vulnerable
families within the community.
According to Lewis, all of the families served by the organization live at or below the federal poverty threshold (i.e. a family of three making no more than $22,000 a year). Services provided by Growing Futures include nutrition; on-site play therapy; parent education; mental, medical and dental health services; along with a dedicated, full-time, professionally trained family support team.
“We provide all of these services with an ultimate goal of every child walking away from our program prepared and ready for school,” he said.
Although Lewis grew up in a loving home, he said his family had minimal resources at their disposal, and they weren’t shown how to gain access to services like the Head Start programming he now oversees.
“Having family support or an advocate to direct us to resources would have been priceless in our growth and development,” he said. “Every child, whether their family can afford $1,600 in child care a month or no more than $20 in child care a month, deserves the same high-quality educational experience.”
A typical day for Lewis starts early — beginning at 4:05 a.m. with a few hours of self-care that include working out and playing pickleball. Then once he checks in at the office, he connects with his team, helps welcome families to the center at drop-off, meets with community members, works on strategic planning, organizes fundraising efforts to meet the financial goals of the organization, and more.
“We work very hard to bring awareness to the community so they know how they can be part of providing the most vulnerable children with the resources they need,” Lewis said. “ In a very affluent community, it can be difficult to bring awareness to the poverty that may exist, and so we work tirelessly for that awareness.”
An investment in the future
In addition to Coach Snyder, Lewis thanks professors in K-State’s Family Studies and
Human Services program for helping him find his direction and develop his passion.
“Professors such as Kelly Welch and Dr. Farrell Webb encouraged me to dig into the work, and be intentional because the impact could be great on the people I would serve in my community,” he said.
As he looks back at the influence these professors, Coach Snyder, and the Boys & Girls Club of Manhattan had on his life, Lewis hopes to inspire, in a similar way, the children who walk through the doors of Growing Futures Early Education Center.
“I want to invest in the children, families and community the way that mentors and caring adults did for me as I was growing up,” he said. “Because I have been in this work a while, I have seen many of the children I’ve worked with now graduating from college, are successful in careers and have children of their own. It gives me a sense of pride, and I want to ensure we leave a legacy of children that ultimately become productive, responsible and caring citizens within the community they choose to be in.”