Presenting Difference maker and Community hero, Charles Lee! The 12-month Community Heroes project spotlights people making a difference in Montgomery each month. The presenting sponsor is Beasley Allen Law Firm, monthly sponsors are the City of Montgomery, Keith Roll, Realtor-Wallace and Moody, and the Montgomery Regional Airport. We will have each winner on our podcast so stay tuned!
Check out the full story here:
Charles Lee wasn’t supposed to live past age 5.
Born prematurely and diagnosed with bronchitis and Hepatitis C at birth, odds were not in his favor. A “crack baby,” Lee spent the first two years of his life in a Chicago hospital before he was deemed strong enough to go home.
But before fast forwarding to the smell of hot dogs at his West Jeff Davis Avenue restaurant, That’s My Dog, first understand that Lee learned to cook crack long before he learned to cook for his successful business. And long before he opened an after-school youth ministry on Upper Wetumpka Road.
Lee was only 11 years old and still in Chicago when he held metal spoons over high heat. A year later, he witnessed a best friend shot twice in the head while robbing a store.
And at 13, he was shot in the chest during an altercation that occurred in retaliation for another friend being injured in a shooting. Then there was a Florida prison where he spent time for selling drugs.
“From everything I’ve experienced, it really boiled down to God trusting me with all of my experiences and helping others,” he said.
Lee, 35, doesn’t just walk into Montgomery neighborhoods today to save lives through serving meat inside a bun or through mentoring.
He walks in to change them and to provide experience and opportunity where some may never get it.
And for that, Lee is the Montgomery Advertiser’s January Community Hero, a recognition offered to someone who often works behind the scenes, and who brings value to our Capital City, and who has a story to tell and lessons to share.
That’s My Dog
Lee does not operate behind the scenes.
He is front and center cooking hot dogs and Conecuh sausage, and grilling sauerkraut, bacon and toppings for specialties like That’s My Gump Dog, That’s My Downtown Dog and That’s My Junkyard Dog.
During a quick break, he sat at one of his restaurant’s tables and talked about the time he spent in prison for selling drugs and how that time made him grateful for past experiences shaping him into who he is today.
Lee talked about for what he wants to do, which is guide children to opportunities in education and the arts.
His work at That’s My Dog has provided him the means, flexibility and self-sufficiency. And the schedule provides him the opportunity to work with the city’s youth through That’s My Child, which provides recreational activities for area youth after school.
“If I wouldn’t have been to jail, I probably would have died,” Lee said. “I think that’s where I heard God’s voice the most. That’s where I figured out who I was. Who are you? Why are you alive?
“And he was like, ‘Hey, remember all those hot dog carts you saw in Chicago? Do you see any around here?’”
Lee and his mother moved to Montgomery when he was 14 years old.
He sat at That’s My Dog and remembered this part of his story, greeting customers as they walked in. And as he walked out with them to continue conversations, giving fist bumps to some, he also made sure to check on customers.
That’s My Dog started as a cart on Dexter Avenue in 2012 — it’s still there — and expanded to the building on West Jeff Davis two years later. In about six months, Lee hopes to have a third location open at That’s My Child. It will be operated by teens for teens — to give them work experience and to provide opportunity.
The purpose of Lee’s mission is simple: “It’s just to let any average Joe from the hood know that your dreams can still come true, no matter how you start it off,” he said.
“No matter how you begin, your end can still turn out fabulous. It really depends on you making the right decisions. And it starts there.”
That’s My Child
It was a Wednesday about 4:30 p.m., and two children sat at computers while another was tutored in math at That’s My Child, a turn-key, gated facility that includes multiple buildings, three vans and two school buses.
Several children who finished schoolwork on this day dribbled a basketball on a one-net court outside. The hoop with torn netting serves as training for the boys who are part of a basketball team.
The ministry here reaches students from Lee High School, Capitol Heights and Goodwyn middle schools, and Highland Gardens and Chisholm elementary schools.
While the first hour of the after-school program was focused on tutoring, which Lee wants to expand, more than 45 youth came in for the extracurricular activities after the first hour.
“We’re still trying to figure it all out,” Lee said of the program. “The vision … it’s really going to change the city. We want to do a television show, where they get to talk about issues that they are facing at home and school.
“It gives me a purpose for living as well. I could just be working here and living life.”
Instead, he has seen five students go to college, sometimes accompanying them as they move onto campus “because they don’t have anyone else.” One has enlisted in the military, and others are working full time.
“In our neighborhood, they say it’s one in every five kids that will graduate high school in Chisholm,” he said. “I know it’s not my job to save everybody. If one of these guys go to college … they can change the world.
“Success is one kid at a time.”
That’s his life
Lee attended McIntyre Middle School and Houston Hill Junior High School, but left both schools because of fights. He ended up making strides at Project Upward School, but after attempting to finish high school at Robert E. Lee High School, he was told his credits wouldn’t transfer, he said.
He dropped out of school and worked at Burger King and Church’s Chicken. And that’s where life went up, and then down again.
He joined the Job Corps, where he met his wife, Mohona, and received his GED and a certificate in culinary arts.
But then old habits re-entered Lee’s life. As he and his wife survived by sleeping on clothes and under jackets, they moved to Florida when Lee was 19 years old.
And Lee began selling drugs on a large scale.
And that sent him to prison, which is when the change within him happened that led him back to Montgomery after his release.
“I want to be more than just talk,” Lee said. “I want to be able to say I’ve done all of that bad stuff, but now I own a business and I’m in your life. That’s the beauty of not being able to just talk about it, but being able to walk the walk, and them being able to see the journey.”
He said when the youth come into his path, he sees it as his responsibility to be an example of who Christ is to him.
“You’re trying to make such a change, but you don’t really see that as far as crime rate,” he said. “You just still see murders going on every night, and still people burglarizing houses. You begin to think, ‘Are you really making changes in your city or neighborhood?’
“It’s our job to make sure we introduce them to Christ. Instead of me trying to make sure I get results. God told me, ‘It’s not your job to change their lives. It’s your job to introduce them to me, and let me change their lives.'”
Location, information, contact
That’s My Dog is located at 232 West Jeff Davis Avenue. Online: That’s My Dog Montgomery on Facebook. Call: 334-356-3040
That’s My Child is located at 2414 Lower Wetumpka Road. Online: www.thatsmychildmgm.org. Call: 334-239-7434
Community Heroes Montgomery
The 12-month Community Heroes Montgomery, sponsored by Beasley Allen Law Firm, starts today and will profile one person every month this year.
Every monthly winner will receive a $500 travel voucher from the Montgomery Regional Airport and American Airlines, a staycation from Wind Creek, dinner at Itta Bena restaurant and a certificate of appreciation from Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange.
At the end of the 12 months, the Heroes will be recognized at a banquet, and a “Hero of 2018” will be honored.
The 12 categories the Montgomery Advertiser will focus on: educator, health, business leader, military, youth, law enforcement, fire/EMT, nonprofit/community service, religious leader, senior volunteer, entertainment (arts/music) and athletics (such as a coach).
Do you know a Community Hero?
To nominate someone for Community Heroes Montgomery, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Please specify which category you are nominating for and your contact information.