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Artistic retreat to help one family help the world 

When Jackson Lewis, 13, announced that he'd like to travel the world to do humanitarian work, his father J.D. took him seriously. Now, the family of three, including Buck, 8, are leaving on a 12-country tour this July. Their plan is to visit 12 countries in 12 months and volunteer wherever they're needed most. But the Lewises don't just want to go, help and leave; they intend to help facilitate similar trips for others.

"I thought we needed to do something big and bold," said J.D. "I want to teach my kids to be the men that the world needs; I want my kids to be global citizens."

That's a great aspiration, but trips like this take money — and lots of it — which is why the trio has been hosting fundraisers around town, like the day-long benefit held on April 23 at the U.S. National Whitewater Center where they raised, as luck would have it, about $12,000. The next one is a doozie, and should excite Charlotte's acting community.

The Lewises moved to Charlotte from Los Angeles a couple of years ago. There, J.D. worked as an actor and an acting coach, as he does here. (He's appeared in a few movies and made guest appearances on TV shows like Suddenly Susan and Friends.) So, it shouldn't be a surprise that the next fundraiser is a three-day goal-setting retreat — June 17-19, at Asheville's Mountain Light Sanctuary — for artists and actors who want to spend a weekend hanging out with talent from Charlotte and beyond. It's not cheap at $650, though the cost does include room and board.

J.D. has been hosting these types of retreats for 15 years, and for this one he's bringing in guests like: Hollywood casting director Jackie Burch; Nick Corley, an off-Broadway director from New York City who directed Woody Sez in Charlotte; Heidi Dove, one of the producers at the award-winning, Charlotte-based Emulsion Arts film company; Joanne Hock, who directed Redneck Roots, a film recently shot in Charlotte; Luanne Bernier, who owns the Charlotte-based Monarch Talent agency; Susan Walters, owner of SWT talent agency in Wilmington; Cher Ferreyra who co-starred on the television show Veronica Mars; Kent Smith, the award-winning official Carolina Panthers photographer, owner of Lucky You Films and producer of the film The Last Passport.

The proceeds from the fundraisers help to fund the Lewis' nonprofit organization — aptly named Twelve In Twelve — established to help raise money for their trip as well as to create a network to aid others wanting to go on similar missions.

As the family began planning their trip, they soon discovered you can't just go to Cambodia and volunteer; things aren't that simple. Their trip would require lots of research and planning. In addition to finding places to volunteer, they investigated the countries' political climates, found out if they need shots or if they should pack extras like toilet paper or meal-replacement bars in bulk, and so on.

That's why as their travel plans began to gel, another plan began to form: They realized they could help people at home as they help people abroad. The Lewis family imagines an online network where other families who also want to help the global community can get the lowdown on where to stay, volunteer, eat and more. Those families will, in turn, be able to add information about their own experiences, thereby helping others at home and abroad, continuing the cycle of good deeds.

"I didn't realize it was going to be this big," said Jackson of his idea, though he added, "I'm glad we're going to be setting it up so other people can do it, too."

Dr. Rob Shapiro, the owner of an economic advisory firm and an adviser to presidents Clinton and Obama, is on Twelve In Twelve's advisory board. He likes the organization's plan to help people take humanitarian aid vacations, where "you go one week and someone else goes another week" in an attempt to keep volunteers in areas of the world where they're most needed. "Here's an opportunity to do a little good in a world that needs as much of it as possible," he said.

The family plans to visit countries on all seven continents — including Antarctica. Their first stop is Russia; their last is Mississippi. ("So we can document poverty in our own nation," said J.D.) In between, they'll spend a month in countries both large and small, volunteering in schools, orphanages, monasteries and wherever else they're needed.

"I don't care what I do," said J.D. "I think the kids feel the same way. We just want to help."

To prepare for their year of travel, the family is selling what they can and storing the rest. (The dogs will stay with a friend.) They're also looking for grants, sponsors and book deals. (The boys both have pending deals with Scholastic Books, and J.D. has an agent, Steve Ross of Abrams Artists Agency in New York.)

Ross is excited about the project because, he said, it's a great example of "American can-do-ism. It speaks to all of us," he said, because "there's something uncontroversially positive about what they're doing."

For more information, contact J.D. Lewis at info@twelveintwelve.org.

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