Keynon Lake is a 1996 graduate of Asheville High School whose work has impacted the lives of more than 500 Buncombe County youth through programs he has developed.
Those programs—My Daddy Taught Me That, which grew out of the book he wrote of the same title; its Junior component; and a parallel program for girls, My Sistah Taught Me That—have not only helped the young participants: they also engage dozens of adults and elders who team up to support and mentor the youth.
Who is this man?
Keynon, the son of the late Bennie Lake and Robin Lake, attended the University of Chattanooga for one year before transferring to NC Central University, where he earned his degree in Sports Medicine. But he never went into that field; instead, he began working for the NC Department of Health & Human Services, where he stayed for ten years doing child social work and another ten as a Community Engagement Social Worker.
In that latter role he had to make sure that communities were aware of available resources in their counties, ensuring access to those resources, advocating for all families in the community (not just those in need), and alleviating problems before acute issues arose. Because each county has different resources, populations, and needs, available support programs are different in Alexander or Barnardsville compared to those in Weaverville or Asheville. The expertise he gained about youth needs and available services became an invaluable resource to him.
My Daddy Taught Me That
Keynon published My Daddy Taught Me That in 2012 as a book intended to inform, educate, and enlighten readers, especially on the man’s role in the home and his influence in shaping his children, families, and our society. In great part it was inspired by his own experience: his father spent 30 years as a social worker for Mountain Juvenile Evaluation Center where he supervised, challenged, taught, encouraged, and mentored boys in need of role models and guidance. “He was pulled on, called, worked late nights,” says Keynon, “And I did not want any part of that.”
Instead, Keynon’s goal, like his father’s, was playing basketball, as he had in college as a point guard. “After I graduated, I wanted to be in the NBA. I briefly played pro ball in Mexico and in Sheffield, England. But God had a different plan.”
In the midst of trying out, travelling, and trainings, he needed a job. “So Dad opened the door, and Cookie Springs, who was supervisor of Family, Children and Medicaid programs at DHHS, hired me for a year. Then she said we need more male social workers. They were paying a $13,000 higher salary than I was getting, and I needed the money, so I took the job. I never knew it would be the foundation of my life, helping me to be what I am today, in service to the community.”
Last January Keynon left Buncombe County DHHS to work full-time for his nonprofit, also named My Daddy Taught Me That. The program runs 12 months of the year. “We don’t stop for the summer, or for school year; we are trying to change the dynamics of our youth but also the way they are perceived in the world and how the world receives them,” and that is full-time work.
The original program, serving young adults ages 12–19, in 6th–12th grades, is dedicated to teaching, and helping, boys make the transition from adolescence to young adulthood. There are currently between 75 and 80 young men, plus seven or eight mentors; the expanded Junior program for boys 6–11 (first through fifth grades) serves another 15 boys led by three “ambassadors.” There is also now a girls’ program, My Sistah Taught Me That, bringing the total number of involved young people to 160 or 170—all on a budget of only $250,000 a year.
The guiding philosophy is simple: “You’ll make mistakes, but as long as you’re held accountable for actions and decisions you make, you’ll be all right.
“The youth are not the problem,” he continues. “The systems have allowed them to be the subject to disparities and micro-aggressions. The world needs to change the way they deal with young African Americans males.”
Keynon is well aware of the countless pitfalls and hurdles set up for African American males, especially in the South. The curriculum, which he developed, explains “how we avoid that, become better than that, don’t fall victims to those pitfalls. In other words, we change the mindsets of young individuals about how you’re supposed to live, move, act. So they think of things—themselves, their place in the world, how to succeed—differently.”
His Daddy taught him
In Keynon’s case, having a dad who was well known throughout the state, and even the nation, was a big plus. Bennie Lake was not only a leader of youth in WNC, he was a former professional basketball player for the Harlem Globetrotters and a member of the Hall of Fame at both his alma maters, Stephens-Lee High School and Shaw University.
As Keynon relates, “When the Globetrotters played Asheville, Curly Neal, Meadowlark Lemon, and the other guys would call, drop by the house, visit with Dad.”
That exposure also kept Keynon out of trouble. “There was nowhere I could go that people didn’t know who I was, where I was supposed to be—or not be. That’s why I named my program that. I learned it all from my dad, though I wasn’t aware of it at the time. And my mother was a terrific support system in the background. She also worked for the Juvenile Center for fifteen years, so I had two parents in that system.”
Both knew the ins and outs, as well as the pitfalls and possibilities, for young men growing up. And his mother, Robin Lake, is strongly supportive of his work and remains an important factor in his life.
Broad community support
Now 44, Keynon Lake is the proud father of two daughters. The support he received growing up, and which he has provided for others for two decades, is being returned by the community. My Daddy Taught Me That is supported by several sustaining donors but also by many small donations from individuals. It is also breaking into grant cycles, including the Tzeddk Social Justice Fund, an Asheville Merchants Association partnership, and other grant opportunities that were not available while he was a Buncombe County employee.
His goal, he says, “is to make sure that My Daddy Taught Me That is one of the leading youth orgs in WNC, but then make it state-wide and, hopefully, even nationwide.”
And to that end, he’s beginning to succeed: Keynon Lake will be recognized for his creation of My Daddy Taught Me That with the 2021 Trailblazer Award from the NC Fatherhood Conference (ncfatherhood.com) at its ceremony on June 19, 2021 in Raleigh.
For more information, visit Mydaddytaughtmethat.org; to purchase the book (ISBN 978-1-566-642873), place an order with any local bookstore or online at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.