SCS Supt. Dr. Joris M. Ray (left) and Jason Wexler, president of the Memphis Grizzlies, pitch a partnership strengthened by the common belief that the participants are stronger together. (Photo: Terry Davis)

The COVID-19 pandemic has not stopped the Memphis Grizzlies and its community partners from expanding their mission to mentor students. 

The group demonstrated their determination during a ceremony April 6 at Booker T. Washington High School, where they unveiled a renovated career lab for BTW students. The legendary high school is just blocks from the Grizzlies’ home court at FedExForum.

The Grizzlies and its partner Pepsi worked with the Close the Gap Foundation, HBCU Awareness Foundation and the Memphis Grizzlies Foundation to make the lab possible.

The lab is part of “Pepsi Stronger Together,” a series of grassroots initiatives to bring tailored programming support to communities across the country.

Initially, there will be six students from the University of Memphis, LeMoyne-Owen College and Rust College in Holly Spring, Mississippi, who will serve as interns. They will meet weekly at BTW.

They will mentor 15 students for 15 weeks. The interns will assist the students in navigating career choices and what colleges can assist them in pursuit of a successful career. 

Derek Lewis, president of the South Division of PepsiCo Beverages North America, said the Pepsi Stronger Together campaign is a vehicle that can be tailored to help communities one at time. (Photo: Terry Davis)

Derek Lewis, president of the South Division of PepsiCo Beverages North America, said, “It takes a village. When we conceived “Pepsi Stronger Together,” we envisioned this as a vehicle to strengthen communities across the country. Working with grassroots efforts and our partners to strengthen them one at a time.”

On why this program, Lewis said, “After COVID-19, we saw the world unfold and saw more dramatic change occur across society. We felt we had to lean in more.  Take on more challenging things other than COVID. 

“Pepsi Stronger Together became a more powerful platform. It is a program you can tailor community by community.”

Jason Wexler, Grizzlies president, said, “It is an honor to be here at BTW to open the career lab. Stronger Together is so in-tuned with our commitment to the Memphis community and our focus in the areas of youth education, practicing mentorships and career development.”

Wexler added, “One great thing about this is finding partners that really want to do the work with you and Pepsi really wanted to do that. Students from the University of Memphis, Rust and LeMoyne-Owen are going to come here and mentor the students from BTW.

“Those students will have internships with Pepsi. You get people from high school to college and on to their careers.  That is what we are really trying to create that continual for this community.”

Tara Harris, principal of Booker T. Washington High School, said the new career lab gives her students a “level playing field” and could have a snowball effect. (Photo: Terry Davis)

Tara Harris, BTW principal, said the lab “gives my students a level playing field. So often so many students have access and exposure to things like this and opportunities associated with this space. The students can see that this is possible. If it starts with a small number of students. I can see this snowballing to all our students.”

Dr. Joris M. Ray, Shelby County Schools superintendent, said, “In order to overcome the obstacles that COVID-19 created for our family, I knew early on that it would take the entire community to become change champions.

“It has been amazing seeing businesses joining together to uplift the children of Shelby County.”

One reason why BTW was selected for the lab was because of its proximity to the FedExForum.  

The program was conceived before the pandemic and then had to adjust to fit the circumstances. Next year there will be more mentees, mentors and internships.