Former housing authority resident returns to help children
Stepping on the front yard of Unit 201, Sabrina Ratcliff Lewis immediately recalled how far in life she had come from the Boutte housing project yet she had become determined to return there to make a difference.
“When I see those kids, I see me – I see myself,” Lewis said. “I remember playing on the same playground. I remember some summers growing up until I reached high school not having a lot to do. As I ride through the housing project, I see the kids and so many memories.”
Lewis, acknowledging what a role her mother had on her path in life, set her mind on sharing her successes as a chemist, instructor and mother with those same children.
On Good Friday, she held her first event – an Easter Extravaganza. Aided by St. Charles Parish Housing Authority Executive Director Benjamin Bell and volunteers, she held the celebration and was still glowing about how much the children enjoyed the day.
In January, she started One Shot Education.
“I wanted to work with any student that needed help going through the process of preparing and gaining entrance into college,” she said. “One Shot Education aims to prepare students for college admittance and obtain scholarships to fund their education.”
When she saw the impact of this move, Lewis decided she could do more.
She contacted Bell at the St. Charles Parish Housing Authority and recounted her own life in the housing project.
This is when the Easter Extravaganza came to life and became an event that had both her and Bell smiling as they recounted the children playing the Bunny Hop race and hunting for eggs. Funded by One Shot Education, as well as donations from friends and family members, and manned with both high school and college students across Louisiana, she made the festival happen.
Lewis intends to continue holding events quarterly.The message she’s trying to give is a housing project might be the place disadvantaged students start, but it doesn’t have to be where they finish.
“You’re from the bricks,” she said of life in a housing project. “Even if you’re from the bricks, you’re not confined to this area for life. You can do much more to create a different life for yourself.”
Lewis said an important element of that step comes from parental support.
Despite living in two housing projects and being put into foster care at age 12, along with her four siblings, she stayed in touch with her mother and it made a difference in her life.
“We lived in the housing project in Des Allemands and then moved to the housing project in Boutte, and stayed until seventh grade having lived there eight years,” Lewis said. Later, they lived in Unit 253 there.
After being put into foster care where she lived in three different homes, Lewis graduated from high school as salutatorian in St. John the Baptist Parish and then returned to the Boutte housing project to live with her mother. A few months later, she went to Xavier University in New Orleans, where she graduated with a degree in biochemistry. She went to graduate school at LSU and got a master’s degree in chemistry and an education specialist degree in curriculum and instruction.
Lewis worked at Ferro Corp. in Zachary from 1999 – 2007 as a plant support chemist and at about the same time worked as an adjunct instructor at Our Lady of the Lake College. In 2007, she started working for Albemarle Co. in Baton Rouge, where she is today as a research and technology services manager.
“As, I walked through the developments, I felt a whirlwind of emotions,” Lewis said. “My mom and I were really close so, of course, it was a little sad looking at 201 – that’s the apartment she died in. She was really my hero … my biggest supporter.”
In Unit 253, she recalled them not having many materialistic things, but Lewis said her mother always cooked a lot of food and everyone came to their house.
“I began to remember all the good days … walking down the street to the playground … the joys and holidays we experienced in 253. My mom always sat on her porch. I miss her a lot … so many memories.”
Lewis said her mother never allowed her to settle for less in life.
“I was truly blessed with foster parents who understood the value of maintaining that relationship with my mom so she visited often,” she said. “I had a social worker Carolyn Kennedy who went above and beyond for me. She is a special person who is still a part of my life today.”
Lewis was able to go back to her mother after she finished high school.
“My mother never really left us even though we were in foster care,” she said.
Lewis’ goals were to go to college, get a career and a family of her own – and she accomplished them all.
Even if it’s just riding through the housing development, Lewis has returned to Unit 201.
“That was the one place where I always felt loved and accepted,” she said. “How much or how little we had never mattered. Everyone loved each other, helped each other, shared with each other, but most importantly respected and looked out for each other. That’s what community is really supposed to be about.”
The opportunity to bring these same experiences to the children of the people she grew up with in the housing project is one of the many reasons Lewis formed One Shot Education in January as a college and career readiness company.
“It’s very important for me to connect to some of the people who still live there … people living there my age or I may have grown up with and now they have kids there,” Lewis said. “Reaching out is important to me because I wanted to work with a group of people open to hearing the information I have and are receptive to taking help from me to get their kids to college or a tech school. Most importantly, I wanted to give back to the place that gave so much love and hope to me. Our project was not the one you saw in the movies – we were a community where everyone helped each other.”
The goal, she said, is to show them, “You can do this, too.”