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Hidden Gems: Meet Shirelle Lewis of Project M.E.I.

Today we’d like to introduce you to Shirelle Lewis.

Shirelle, we appreciate you taking the time to share your story with us today. Where does your story begin?
I was born and raised in East Austin, TX. My entire family are from Austin as well, and we all attended the same schools growing up. As a child, I never had a role model to follow regarding education and the benefits of it. I understood it was important for us to attend school to graduate, but I was unaware of the opportunities that were available post-graduation. With this in mind, I did not take school seriously. I was doing well with grades until High School. At that time, I was barely passing my classes and did not know a GPA existed or how it will benefit my future for higher education. It wasn’t until my bestfriend, Emerald asked me to attend college with her at Prairie View A&M University. Emerald made me excited about the possibility because attending college with my bestfriend would be amazing! So, I decided to speak with my guidance counselor to discuss this opportunity, which I then found out about my GPA. I was devastated to learn that my GPA was below average and needed some work. Long story short, I applied for admission at PVAMU and was rejected. My heart was broken. My bestfriend was accepted without any issues, but my story ended differently. However, I did not give up. I had to prove to myself that I am good enough to get accepted too. I took my SAT and ACT exams over and resubmitted my application. I GOT ACCEPTED! This was the best news ever! My mother and my family were absolutely proud of me. It was the best feeling!

Throughout my undergraduate years, I was able to find my inspiration and my passion by majoring in Social Work. My overall mission was to focus on my GPA to prove to myself that I can overcome my past. During this time, I decided to join a social work organization on campus (Social Work Action Club), volunteer through Panthers At Work (P.A.W), joined Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Incorporated, as well as co-founded an all-girls support group with my bestfriend at a local elementary school called Girl Talk. I graduated from PVAMU (2012) with a 3.5 GPA. I went straight into my Master’s program at Texas State University in San Marcos to pursue my degree in Social Work-Direct Practice. I graduated from Texas State (2013) with a 3.6 GPA. I am now working on my doctorate degree at Capella University where my GPA stands at a 3.857. I continue to speak on my GPA because I want our youth to see that your past education experience does not have to follow you into your future. Life is full of lessons, but it is up to you on how to pursue and execute your goals.

This is why in 2017, I decided to make it my mission to spread awareness regarding opportunities post-graduation, but ultimately to support our younger generation on their future endeavors. It is not always easy, and many individuals do not have the necessary support to push through and pursue a higher education and/or other professional careers. Growing up in poverty and an underprivileged community, I want to ensure there is a resource out there to support this population and give hope. That is when Project M.E.I was born!

Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
My journey has not been the smoothest road, but my ambition and faith is what guided me to where I am today. Throughout my entire journey from my childhood, throughout college, my professional career until now as a business owner, I have endured struggles. I lost my dad at the age of 19, my grandmother (big mama) age 28, and caring for my mom (Christene) as she battles two cancers since 2017 (multiple myeloma & breast cancer). I’ve decided to mentioned this part because I understand how losing a loved one and seeing others fight through health issues can alter one’s mental state. Without the proper support system put in place, it can become easy for youth to give up or to feel as if they do not have anyone to turn to. Being able to speak with someone about your mental struggles will indeed assist in working towards overcoming that battle.

As for college, I’ve always intended to major in science because that was my favorite subject. I considered becoming a Crime Scene Investigator, however, my first semester was not my best. I majored in Biology at the time. Every test taken I failed. I finished the semester with a D, which is considered passing. But, I was so disappointed and discouraged. I felt defeated until I had a conversation with my older sister, Sonya. She pretty much told me that Social Work is where I am meant to be. I never heard of this profession until this conversation. I decided to learn more about the major by speaking with the head professor and the dean. It was at that moment I found my calling. I immediately switched my major and never looked back. It was the best decision I could ever make. My purpose in life is to support the underserved communities focusing on opportunities that are available to them post-graduation, as well as provide and/or connect youth and families with the necessary tools and resources to lead the life they are destined to live.

In 2017, I had a desire to create a platform that focuses on high school students residing in underserved populations. My goal has always been to give back to my community, but I wanted to do something that made a difference in how our youth population views the world. Project M.E.I was created based on my upbringing and the needs I see underserved communities would benefit from. I’ve started small by building volunteer opportunities and awarding a $500 college scholarship once a year. The challenge I’ve had with the scholarship is that I am not always able to raise the targeted amount. There have been times where myself or my mother would use our personal funds to finance the scholarship. No matter the circumstances, it is important for me to award my scholarship every year, which we have been blessed to do. We have just awarded our 4th annual scholarship this past July. Although funding is currently a challenge, myself and my small team are still working as hard as we can to keep moving forward with our initiatives: Provide community service opportunities that are court ordered or for college applications; support youth their first year out of high school through financial assistance, tutoring services, and case management; Assist in the preparation for post-graduation/independent living, etc. Right now, grants are competitive and Covid-19 has caused a lot of financial difficulties across the globe. Project M.E.I continues to be uplifting and dedicated to the mission and purpose we serve.

We’ve been impressed with Project M.E.I. Inc., but for folks who might not be as familiar, what can you share with them about what you do and what sets you apart from others?
I am the founder and CEO of Project M.E.I. Inc. I created this nonprofit organization to share my story and to encourage our youth to follow their heart, reach their goals, and overcome any and all obstacles that may come their way. Project M.E.I. Inc is an educational-based nonprofit organization motivating every youth to reach their fullest potential—by pursuing a higher education and/or professional career and giving back to their community. M.E.I (pronounced as “me”) stands for Making Everlasting Impressions. The reason for its significance is because as minorities residing in underserved communities, we are sometimes looked at differently. When one is judged based on appearance and their background, it is easy to feel “out of place” or like you do not belong. Just because someone has developed their own perception of you does not mean you have to live up to that view. We are all unique in our own way, and our past circumstances should not steer our future path in the direction that it is not intended to go. Project M.E.I. Inc mission strives to strengthen our youth by encouraging them to overcome behavioral, educational and environmental obstacles; through fostering them in an environment that would enable insight and success. We’re part of the community-building resources for the adolescent population and to support their dreams in leading their own success story. Every child has an opportunity, and we want to be a part of the movement to assist them in reaching their fullest potential.​

We are currently providing the following services:
– Volunteer and community service opportunities
– Life Coach services
– Annual “Sandy” Scholarship
– Guest speaking at schools and other organizations

In the near future, we are expecting to have in place tutoring specialists, college preparation support, and youth internships.

Project M.E.I provides services throughout our client’s high school career up to one year after graduation. This will ensure they are prepared for life post-graduation and receive the necessary support to manage life their first year as an adult. Our services are FREE!

Our motto is: 2 Embrace. 2 Encourage. 2 Engage. 2 Empower.

We want to embrace our circumstances; encourage youth to overcome obstacles and challenges they face in everyday life; engage with our youth population to build rapport, and to let them know they do “belong” where they feel otherwise; and to empower our youth to face their fears and pursue what makes them happy.

We pride ourselves in our collaboration efforts within the underserved communities (i.e., churches, local schools, etc.). We love opportunities that allow Project M.E.I to collaborate and build partnerships with other organizations, especially those similar to our mission. There is no reason for similar organizations to not work together to create a bigger platform that encourages our communities. As nonprofits, if we are provided the chance to work together, imagine how powerful our initiatives will be. The communities will benefit greatly by this collective effort!

If you would like to donate to Project M.E.I. Inc. please text the word “give” to (512) 360-0901 OR you may submit a donation via cash app to $MEIproject

How do you define success?
Defining success is difficult to put into words as it is seen in different viewpoints depending on one’s mindset and their intentions. Success to me is finding peace in your purpose. We are always encouraged to reach a goal in life, but what does that look like? Personally, my success has multiple layers. Progress can equal success.

My social work career has catered to the adolescent population and the foster care system. I have done everything from working towards reducing recidivism in the juvenile population to approving court documents for adoption and teaching foster youth life skills prior to aging out of care. With my extensive social work background, I was able to identify my purpose, hence my success! My success is learning the different avenues to help and support the very community I come from. I have been able to reach my educational goals (well, once I finish my doctorate degree); I was blessed to begin a nonprofit organization where I am able to live out my passion; I’ve overcome many challenges and still prospered; and, I am able to make my family proud, especially my mother. Those are successes and I am building from there. My purpose was to use my story to encourage others, which brings peace knowing that I have the platform to do so. My purpose. My peace. My success.

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Image Credits:

Emerald Bradley (Infinite Flash)

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