When Demetrius Kemp sees that someone might need help, he puts his “Superman suit” on.
This instinct goes all the way back to his childhood in Alabama, when Kemp used to sneak food and even some of his clothes to the kids who lived nearby. When his mother took those kids into her home for a month, he made a decision at only 8 years old.
“I just remember telling my mom that I would never watch a kid be hungry or not have toys or a Christmas,” Kemp said. “I said that a kid would never have a bad holiday around me for the rest of my life.”
Kemp brought this determination with him when he moved to Lawrence 21 years ago. In those 21 years, he’s dedicated his free time to finding ways to help people in need through volunteer work and community projects.
Last summer, the READ project — short for Race Education And Development — served as an example of that.
As a security guard at Free State High School, Kemp interacts with kids often and he said he wanted to find a way to keep them informed about Black history. When George Floyd was murdered, Kemp knew that historical context was necessary to understand how it had happened.
“To understand what’s going on, you got to start all the way back at the beginning,” Kemp said.
Kemp purchased a couple dozen books about civil rights and Black history and distributed them to Little Free Libraries across Lawrence with the help of READ team members and the Chamber’s Leadership Lawrence alumni. After exploring the map of those libraries, Kemp said they noticed a disparity in the number of those libraries through different parts of town and determined that more of them needed to be built.
The READ team reached out to the community to find people who might be willing to sponsor a library and have one in front of their house or their business. The response was enthusiastic, Kemp said, and 10 more libraries had been built across town by the end of 2020. As of today, READ has given around 35 new little libraries to the community.
Kemp has been part of additional efforts to keep the kids of Lawrence reading through volunteering with the Lawrence Public Library’s summer reading program. He said the library hopes to send a bookmobile to local preschools and elementary schools when the school year starts.
With the approach of the upcoming school year, Kemp is also volunteering to help with the United Way of Douglas County’s Back 2 School drive to collect school supplies for Lawrence’s students and teachers. He’s been working on outreach this summer to reach out to businesses in the community in hopes of getting them involved, and some have already voiced interest in donating or volunteering their spaces — including Wayne & Larry’s offering to donate the proceeds from their summer concert toward the drive.
“I work with a lot of teachers and I see their struggle every day supply-wise,” Kemp said. “People have already reached out to say that they want to help.”
Outreach efforts like Kemp’s add a component to the Back 2 School drive that AmeriCorps member Jasmine Bates said are new this year. As an organizer of the drive, Bates said her goal this year was to make the project more of a communitywide effort.
Volunteers help extend the possible reach for support through the individual connections they have in the community, she said, but they also allow her to shift her role to one of support and to create more of a team effort.
“I think when people can volunteer full-time, whether it’s with a nonprofit or a mutual aid effort or doing other organizing, is what really just keeps our communities thriving,” Bates said. “They’re literally adding value to the community.”
In the spring of 2020 as schools shut down, Kemp became a full-time volunteer at Just Food with his new spare time. Distribution at the food bank moved to a curbside model to adhere to COVID-19 safety measures in the spring, and Outreach Director Ryan Bowersox said cars began to arrive that had never gotten food assistance before the pandemic.
The impact of full-time volunteers like Kemp being there from the first car to the last was huge, but Bowersox knew Kemp even before he became a volunteer at Just Food. The two of them met through their time in the Leadership Lawrence class of 2019. Bowersox said she immediately saw that he was someone she needed to know.
“He has never met a stranger,” Bowersox said. “He’ll learn your name and he’ll remember your name. People really do trust him right away, and there’s good reason because he follows through.”
Having someone like Kemp in the community sets an example, Bowersox said — not just for the adults he encounters, but for the kids he sees at work each day.
“I just think about if I had that presence in high school and what that would have meant to me,” Bowersox said. “Seeing someone that’s not only showing up to do their job and do their job well, but also taking their valuable time outside of their job to do good for other people.”
Volunteering and getting involved in helping the community is something Kemp said he’s happy to set aside the time for. He’s always out and about, and if someone in town needs help, he said people usually know that he’s the person to call.
When he thinks about what he wants most to come out of the work he does, he thinks about inspiring others to lend a helping hand. He wants others in Lawrence to see what he’s doing and realize how easily they could join him.
“I don’t need the awards and I don’t need the kudos,” Kemp said. “Honestly, I want people to see it and I want them to say, ‘I could do that.’ And I want to see them go do it.”