Staff Writer: Savannah Phillips
Wingate University student Jaquan Edwards is making a difference in the lives of middle- and high-school boys by volunteering for the LEAD ME (Lead, Empower and Develop Me) Program in Johnston, South Carolina.
A motivator and a mentor, Edwards strives to encourage them to see the good in themselves.
“A lot of the time I remind them, ‘You are a prosperous person. When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself that. Remind yourself that. You are somebody and you have purpose,’” Edwards says.
A native of Johnston, Edwards loves the Edgefield County town, where nearly a quarter of the population lives in poverty, but also understands the importance of helping youth see a pathway toward larger opportunities. His goal is to give young men someone they can look up to.
“Jaquan grew up in this community, so it’s exciting to see him not just come back, but give back,” says Marcella Edwards, chief executive officer of the Edgefield County Youth Empowerment Center, which operates LEAD ME.
Edwards began volunteering in 2021, but this past summer, moved up to a leadership role, conducting seminars to teach boys valuable life skills, such as job efficacy, the importance of manners, and showing up on time.
Edwards describes a particular young man who started out feeling that he would not amount to much in life. Though it didn’t happen overnight, Edwards helped him develop a new mindset, encouraging him to have a dream and direction. Now, he’s volunteering for local churches and in his community.
Edwards says he loves seeing the kids grow and go through a metamorphosis of sorts. “Everyone has a unique story and journey – what I call ‘the walk,’” Edwards says. “Everyone wants to accomplish their dreams.”
By giving the young boys work opportunities and time dedicated to activities outside of school, the LEAD ME Program keeps them off of the streets and away from areas where youth violence is most common.
Program leaders say their main focus is to “feed and fellowship youth, rather than funeralize them.”
The program uses the “little brother system,” reminding both volunteer leaders and program participants that younger kids are looking up to them. Edwards says the system helps boys realize that they are no longer accountable only for themselves, but for someone else as well.
He recognizes that the LEAD ME participants are the future of his community.
“Helping the future of Johnston just means the world to me,” Edwards says. The 22-year-old earned his bachelor of science in psychology from Wingate in May and is now pursuing his master’s from Wingate’s Thayer School of Education online. It was a football scholarship that led him to Wingate, and he has made the most of his experience.
Named Wingate’s Athlete of the Week in November of last year, Edwards (#30) plays linebacker for the Bulldogs.
“Not only is he a hero on the field, but he’s also a hero to our local community,” Marcella Edwards says.
Edwards hopes to one day become a school-system administrator. It was his mother, a retired teacher of 37 years, who volunteered Edwards for the LEAD ME Program initially, knowing that he had a heart for helping people.
“Real meaning in life never comes from what you get; it comes from what you give,” Marcella Edwards says. “Motivating our youth is not an easy task. But, it takes a team – a community to do so. And, Jaquan is part of the team!”