Jerel Wilson s the founder and executive director of For My Kidz, an organization established in 2006, dedicated to helping at-risk youth achieve their goals. (Photo by Jerel Wilson on Facebook)

By Tiffany C. Ginyard,
Special to the AFRO

The city of Baltimore is finally catching up to speed with the founder and executive director of For My Kidz. Those in touch with human service organizations around town know that Jerel Wilson is a household name. Mention the words “resilient,” “tenacious,” or “resourceful,” and Wilson’s name is likely to come up—more than once—and for many reasons.

Whether it’s a mention of his legendary athleticism on the basketball court, or the far-reaching impact For My Kidz (FMK) has made on youth, families, and communities statewide under his leadership, Wilson deserves his flowers today.

“Jerel is one of those by-any-means-necessary, make-it-happen type of guys,” said Cinnisha Lewis, program director of Redesigning Minds, a psychiatric rehabilitation program serving youth, adolescents and adults. A sister to Wilson in this work, she is among a handful of those who’ve witnessed the growth and development of FMK. Lewis has seen the service progress from a small sports-focused mentoring program to a full-fledged, 501c(3) designated, non-profit organization. 

In 2006, FMK emerged as a passion project that extended beyond the full-time hours Wilson put in as a behavioral health service provider for Building Communities Today for Tomorrow. During that time, Wilson and Lewis started their careers as entry-level human service professionals. While he was there, Wilson gained a diverse experience serving at-risk adolescents as a therapeutic behavioral aide and life skills coach for the agency’s detention reduction advocacy program (DRAP). He also realized that more could be done to close the gap between life-supporting resources and the people who need them most. 

FMK picked up momentum a few years later when Wilson partnered with former Buffalo Bills and Atlanta Falcons Tech Safety, the late Keion Carpenter. The two formed an unbreakable bond as students in Baltimore County Public Schools in the 90s. Having found success in their individual careers, they formed a philanthropic collaborative, The Carpenter House, founded on a shared vision to empower and elevate the minds of Baltimore youth utilizing the discipline of athletics to reach them. Together, they demonstrated how to hone skills learned on the basketball court or the football field into hard and soft skills they could use to transform their life experiences. 

“Jerel is like a locomotive, moving full steam ahead–always,”  said Lewis. “Truth be told, his passion has, and continues to carry a lot of people. He plows through anything in his way, picking up people on the way,” said Lewis. “People like myself, and even Keion, were just cars on his train.”

“The locomotive” lost a bit of steam, however, in 2017 when news struck of Carpenter’s untimely death, after suffering a head injury while on vacation that kept him in a coma for two days. It was a time when “The Carpenter House–For My Kidz Express,” was traveling at peak speed—they’d just wrapped up a successful annual Christmas Toy Giveaway and had been awarded a youth development contract with City Schools. A partnership with the Baltimore Ravens to support the development of future programming was also already in the bag. Unfortunately, an incomplete succession plan for The Carpenter House left Wilson seeking new pathways to sustain the program’s impact, built off the back of their sacred brotherhood.

“For Jerel to be dedicated to the mission of the Carpenter House for so long, and to carry it with For My Kidz by himself – when others dropped it – makes him tenacious,” said Taneisha Parker, FMK project manager.

Wilson’s team “got their hands dirty,” recalled Marcus Wise, program coordinator for Redesigning Minds, another colleague and fellow ball player of Wilson’s. “He’s the pioneer of bridging the gap between city-county community outreach for Black kids in Baltimore. People from the County wouldn’t come to the City with their outreach initiatives; he was the first one to cross over to the city [with programming]. That’s why he can go anywhere and be welcomed with open arms.”

Pre-pandemic, FMK partnered with the Food Project, a program that brings culinary skills, job opportunities, sustainable food sources, mentorship and hope to the youth of southwest Baltimore. With FMK onboard, The Food Project saw an increase in employment outcomes for participants. Under Wilson’s guidance, youth were offered contracts from Camden Yards and the Ravens stadium. 

In 2020, FMK forged a partnership with the ICARE Resource Center, where he met the currently three essential members of the FMK Dream Team: Sarah Wallace, a grassroots organizer and BNLP (Bunting Neighborhood Leadership Program fellow with the Johns Hopkins Urban Health Institute; Taneisha Parker, a human service professional, and former social service case manager Jamais Burts.

In the summer, Wilson secured FMK as a new “navigator” for the Mayor’s Office, and in a short span, impacted program outcomes by increasing the number of people in need of assistance with homelessness, therapy, workforce development, and/or mentoring by 20 per week, totaling over 200 individuals.

In December, Wilson reignited a vision he and Carpenter shared– a winter wonderland for 100 families for the holiday season. With the support of Resource Center staff, the Kennedy’s Kloset Initiative, named after Carpenter’s daughter, successfully served over 500 families.

In 2021, ownership of the ICARE Resource Center, located on the corners of North Avenue and Pulaski Streets, and its staff was transferred to Wilson, where summer and out-of-school programming, Bro Code, was launched. Programming exposed young people to horseback riding with the Schuester Foundation; cooking and farming classes in partnership with So What Else and Be More Green; job readiness through partnerships with Youthworks and the Marcus Hadden Foundation. 

Today, FMK’s outreach services extends to workforce development and emergency housing and other essential social services, not just for youth but now for whole families. And there are no signs of slowing down, especially since the organization was gifted a company vehicle by the Schuster Foundation and Annapolis Subaru.

In September, over 120 people, including representatives from various branches of city government, poured into the Guilford Brewery to celebrate 16 years of resilience, tenacity, and resourcefulness at FMK’s annual gala. 

“This year marked an amazing turn of service for For My Kidz. Our dedicated staff has done an incredible job at expanding our outreach while extensively strengthening our programs and services. With the support of our donor base and grant funding, the number of clients directly serviced in the field has increased by 125 percent to a total of 700-plus,” Wilson said to supporters in closing remarks. “What I envisioned became history. We started in 2007, but we still got so far to go. Jobs and housing are our biggest challenges. So if you know somebody that wants to help somebody, just reach out.”

That night, FMK raised over $7,000 on the spot, but Sarah Wallace, FMK’s director of operations, while grateful, insists this doesn’t begin to cover the expenses for the organization’s sustainability and expansion. 

“To be able to hold that space with so many people who made each step of FMK possible was a dream come true for us. We wish we could raise that everyday so we could help more people,” said Wallace.

“The reality is that it takes $240,000 a year just to effectively operate as an organization. And that’s before we add in adequate pay for the boots on the ground. We need more big payouts to make an even bigger impact.” 

Tiffany C. Ginyard is the founder of the Fly Girl Network, a non-profit organization focused on raising the collective consciousness and well-being of Black people in Baltimore and beyond through conscious-raising media, youth and leadership development, and collaborative healing initiatives.

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