Actress Mentors Youth at Inner City Camp

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It's not "Dancing with the Stars," but a group of inner city kids got the chance of a lifetime. 
They danced, sang, acted in - and even produced - their very own stage play and they did it all with a little help from someone many of them have watched on TV.

Dawnn Lewis is best known for her roles in sitcoms such as "A Different World" and "Hangin' with Mr. Cooper."  But for the past 14 years, she has taken on a more important role -- acting coach and mentor to inner city kids.

"I love being creative," Lewis said. "I love finding all kinds of ways to express myself and I know I only did that because someone took the time to encourage me. So that's why it's important for me to be here for these young people to encourage them."

Lewis serves on the board of advisors for Youth Entertainment Studios or YES, a non-profit camp in Chesapeake, Va. that teaches young people about music production and marketing. It gives them hope to dream beyond a life of drugs and crime.

"We use the arts to encourage and cultivate a spirit of success in our young people," Lewis explained. "We teach the young people how to create and develop either a film project, a television project, a stage project or a movie project or a music project. And these kids are kids who never would have normally spoken to each other in school."

Each year, the six week camp culminates into a professional theater presentation. This year's theme is combating gang violence -- something YES campers face on a daily basis.

"We were actually given a community empowerment grant by the city of Chesapeake to end gang violence in the community and the theme of the play kind of centers around that," said YES staff member Courtney Greene. "Talking to these kids about giving them a voice, expressing their voice, and using that to stay away from those negative activities."

For the kids it is a chance to have fun while learning vital life lessons.

"I believe it's exciting," said YES Camper Ricky McKelvin. "I believe it's very exciting, I've never done nothing like this before. You know it starts from singing in your room to music to your singing on a mic and you're being produced."

Camper Mykkia Barrow said she is not as self-centered anymore.

"I've learned to appreciate the better things in life," she said.

And that response from campers is what keeps Lewis coming back year after year.

"Some of these kids will never go into entertainment as a profession," she said. "But what they come away with after our program is how to put the pieces together to achieve a goal, to succeed in an area that you really had no clue of before and they apply that across the board."

*Original broadcast August 21, 2009.

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Charlene  Aaron

Charlene Aaron

CBN News Reporter

Charlene Aaron serves as a general assignment reporter and helps anchor for the CBN News Channel.  Follow her on Twitter @CharNews and "like" her at