For her son, April Lee earns second master's degree
April Lee planned on attending a graduation ceremony this year.
She expected to sit in the audience with her husband, Alfred II, and youngest son Aran, watching with pride as oldest son Alfred William Lee III (Will) crossed the stage at Williamstown High School to receive his high school diploma.
Instead, she will be attending her own commencement ceremony at Rowan University on May 16, outfitted in black robe and mortarboard, earning her second master’s degree, this one in an M.A. in Counseling in Educational Settings.
Her husband and Aran will be in the bleachers cheering her. Her son Will will be there in sprit.
He wasn’t supposed to die so young.
Will Lee was a freshman in high school, 15, a good student — though struggling a bit — and an accomplished athlete. He loved — after God, after family — basketball. His attitude? BBall for Life.
On March 26, 2010, after experiencing headaches and back pain doctors, diagnosed Will with a brain tumor, which was later found to be cancer, a form of cancer rare in young people and rare among African Americans, according to his mother.
“He was such a good basketball player, and academically he was a good student. His grades started to slip when he was in sixth grade. He worked harder. He never had an excuse. He never had a problem asking for help,” April Lee recalled. “Just before he got sick he wasn’t doing so well, and he was upset. When we found out he had a brain tumor, then we knew why. He battled the disease for seven long weeks and then succumbed. I was devastated.”
Devastated but not down. Devastated and determined.
To honor their son and to help others, April and Alfred Lee II started a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, BBall For Life Foundation, Inc.
“BBall for Life works with student athletes on building character and improving academics. We hold basketball clinics, we offer college and career planning, tutoring,” said April Lee, 42. “It’s based wherever we can find a place. I meet parents wherever. If I’m at a basketball game or at a football game and parents ask about what courses their children should take in high school, I’ll stop and talk to them.”
Added the Lindenwold Middle and High School English and language arts teacher, “If I meet concerned parents, I’ll try to educate them to help their kids. I think a lot of parents, if they had a bad experience in school, they don’t know how to help their kids. They have a block. I try to help them navigate the system.”
Her husband, high school and college coaches, college students and others also volunteer for the foundation, which has received a great deal of support from the Lindenwold school district. The foundation plans to donate $1,000 to brain cancer research and award two $1,000 scholarships to students at Williamstown and Lindenwold high schools in the near future. The Lees hope to one day open a school for elite athletes. (To learn more about the foundation, visit BBallforlife.org.)
Didn’t stop there
For April Lee, however, the foundation was just one part of how she decided to honor her firstborn.
The woman who earned a B.A. in English and African-American Studies from Rutgers-Camden and an M.A. in Education Leadership and Policy Management from Seton Hall University decided to pursue a second graduate degree and to finish it the year Will would have graduated from high school.
“He never gave up,” April Lee said of her son. “He was very focused. I knew I wanted to do more, and he always told me, ‘Mom you can do whatever you want to do.’”
She tackled her graduate program full speed.
Spring semester 2012, she took two classes.
Summer 2012, she took three classes.
Fall 2012, she enrolled in five classes.
This semester she carried six classes, all while working full time.
“I’m an overachiever,” said the Williamstown resident, who also is active in her sorority and at St. Matthew’s Baptist Church in her hometown. “And it feels great to finish when he would have graduated.”
Her family and friends think she’s “crazy” for carrying the course load she did. Will, she suspects, would be proud.
“He was supposed to graduate from high school this year and I was going to make sure somebody graduated,” said April Lee, who hopes to become a school counselor. “It is bittersweet because I will receive a diploma and my son never will. But he was a good student and an excellent athlete, so I honor him in this endeavor. He would be so proud of me that I’ve done this. He understood education was for life.”