Another dream has become reality for Torrey Smith.
The LEVEL Up Leadership Academy founded by Smith and his wife, Chanel, launched Monday at Baltimore City Recreation and Parks' Hilton Recreation Center. The program is an eight-week summer camp for kids ages 10-12, supported by the Ravens who have contributed nearly $400,000 to upgrade the recreation center.
When Smith played for the Ravens and helped them win a Super Bowl, the wide receiver was a big-time playmaker. Reaching the NFL gave Smith the platform to pursue a greater mission beyond football – to be a difference-maker in his adopted home of Baltimore. Watching the positive response from children attending the academy is the reward for the collaborative effort it took by many people to launch this project.
"I'm extremely thankful to the Baltimore Ravens for their continued support of everything I've been willing to do since Day 1," Smith said. "I remember when I first was drafted by the Ravens, I understood how important it was to be in the community and to give back. I've been able to see how much the team cares about its city, but also how it supports its players and family trying to help elevate the city, or help players live out their mission."
Smith and is wife are directing the academy with another former NFL player, Aaron Maybin, a Baltimore native who understands the importance of giving positive guidance to the city's youth. An artist and social activist, Maybin loves the buzz being generated by a program investing in Baltimore's future leaders. The academy's curriculum consists of reading and math, leadership workshops, social/emotional learning and a community service project.
"Nothing like this ever existed when I was a kid, not in this neighborhood," Maybin said. "Not in my immediate proximity. Our rec centers weren't open by and large. Most of the ones that were open had no kind of programming like what we're offering.
"It goes a long way to show how far we've come, that programming like this not only exits now, but people like myself and Torrey can be at the forefront of creating it. It pushes back against that narrative, that people in communities like ours in Baltimore aren't doing all that's necessary to change and fix the problems that exist."
The Smiths and Maybin have been doing community work for years, and their experience and connections helped form the vision for the leadership academy. The Hilton Recreation Center had been closed for about 12 years and needed renovations, but Smith saw the potential.
"We chose this area for three reasons," Smith said. "This facility was sitting still for years. It has a strong school in the area in Green Street Academy. And three, which really should really be No. 1, it has a very strong community association. We wanted to be part of a community, not come in and try to change anything. Too often, people come in and they try to give the community all their answers, and the way they think the community should be fixed or helped. We came in wanting to figure out how we can fit in. We're a piece of the community."
Smith said he relied heavily on input from the Ravens to launch this project. He mentioned Ravens Owner Steve Bisciotti and his family, President Dick Cass, Senior Director of Special Events/Special Assistant to the Owner & President Lisa Dixon, and Vice President of Community Relations/Executive Director, Ravens Foundation Heather Darney as being instrumental in working to bring the academy to fruition. Maybin never played for the Ravens, but as a Baltimore native, he is greatly appreciative for the commitment the Ravens have made to the city.
"I've never seen an organization support this type of initiative the way the Ravens are supporting us," Maybin said. "I think it's time for organizations to think about the way they partner. I get tired of hearing people talking all day about Baltimore City's problems, but those people aren't involved in anything as far as being part of the changes they want to see in Baltimore.
"We want to show people the blueprint of what it looks like to build from the inside out. From the grassroots up. Forget this idea of trickle-down economics, or trickle-down philanthropy. No. Let's start from the bottom. Let's start from the dirt and build it into something replicable so that all schools in across the city of Baltimore, all rec centers across the city of Baltimore, and eventually rec centers across the country will be able to adopt these same practices."
Smith said the academy will have an after-school program in the fall, and that he plans to collaborate with the Ravens on more social initiatives in the upcoming months.
"There are bigger things that are coming," Smith said. "Baltimore is going to be a better city because of the decisions the Ravens are making to help lead the change."