Inspiring Minds; changing lives, one kid at a time

Students from the Durham and Philadelphia chapters of Inspiring Minds toured Duke University and North Carolina A&T at the end of March. Photo courtesy of the Inspiring Minds Instagram page.

Monday, April 22, 2024

By Maya Waid

It started with four kids at a McDonalds. 

At the beginning they talked about their lives with Bree Elzy and Deryck Toles. They would meet in the same McDonald’s once a month. Soon, it turned into weekly meetings. One day, one of the kids asked Elzy and Toles a question that would change their future plans. 

“Hey, I want to go to college. Can you help me?”

From there, the students started to bring their homework to the meetings. Then, they brought their friends and began forming relationships with Toles, a former NFL linebacker, and Elzy who was working at a church in Warren, Ohio at the time they met. 

Once Toles and Elzy realized that the students that they were helping had never been outside of the city, they decided to organize opportunities to expose the students to the world outside of their hometown. 

They started by taking a group of 22 students to New York City where they saw “The Color Purple” on Broadway and met with lead actors following the show. In addition, they went to Essence magazine to learn about magazine publication. Lastly, they went to the NFL headquarters and toured their studios to get a behind the scenes look at a Sunday show.

Elzy and Toles began exposing the Ohio natives to things that they had never seen before and opportunities they didn’t know existed. When they saw the students growing, the two realized that they could do more. 

“That was eye opening,” Elzy said about the New York trip. “When we saw all the light bulbs going off in the kid’s heads and they started seeing there’s more than their circumstances, they started to engage and lock in more, and that’s when we knew we had something.”

In 2006, Toles decided to move forward with his vision for a free program with after-school tutoring and summer programs to support kids who want to explore options post high school – he called it Inspiring Minds

In 2007, Inspiring Minds went on their first visit to a local college. Less than a year later, Toles was overseeing 50 students that met twice a week for homework help and recreation time. 

Three years later, Inspiring Minds was recognized on Oprah Winfrey’s “Inspiring People” show. The organization didn’t expand its reach until 2015 when they opened a chapter in Youngstown, Ohio.  

In 2006, Elzy accepted a position as a school nurse at the Saint Mary’s School in Raleigh, N.C. While she was packing up her belongings in Warren, Toles gave her a parting message. 

“He told me ‘you’re going to North Carolina, get set up and then you’re going to start a chapter of Inspiring Minds,’” Elzy said. 

Over the next 12 years Elzy held several different jobs in the triangle area including one as a staff nurse at the Carolina House Eating Disorder Treatment Program and another as an immunization nurse at Duke University.

In 2018, Elzy wanted to do more to give back through community service. Finally, she decided to take Tole’s advice and open the fifth Inspiring Minds chapter in Durham. 

“We started virtually and just started meeting with students that we knew in the community and checking in with them,” Elzy said. “Once things opened up a little bit, we rented space at Knox St. Studios and we started recruiting our own students and we met with them in person there.”

In her role as Executive Director, Elzy focuses on promoting community partnerships, searching for grants and recruiting volunteers as peer mentors. In the evenings, she shifts her focus to the students – helping them do homework, prepare for standardized tests and explore post-graduation options. 

Elzy is the only full-time staff member at the Durham chapter and normally sees 20-25 students in a day. Volunteers from NC State, Duke University and NC Central help with tutoring and programs for the kids. Being able to work directly with the students is what continues to motivate Elzy in her work. 

“I love just talking and building relationships with the kids, them telling me what happened during the day and sitting down with them around the table and eating,” Elzy said. “A close second, though, is seeing their faces light up for the first time when they’ve done something new and they enjoy it.”

One of Elzy’s students, Cam Rogers, has been a part of the Inspiring Minds program for three years. When Rogers started in the program as a sophomore at Hillside High School, he was unsure what his future education may look like. Through Inspiring Minds, Rogers has been able to expand his view and take steps toward his goal. 

“Back in tenth grade I had my eye on just one school,” Rogers said. “But then Inspiring Minds opened my eyes up to different schools, different majors, different types of schools and other opportunities you could do after you graduate.”

In the program, Rogers enjoys opportunities to meet new people, cook together and do homework. Most weeks, he goes to Inspiring Minds three days a week after school to get support with work and applications for college. 

Inspiring Minds has made such a big impact on Rogers that he made it his mission to recruit his classmates to also join the program. So far, he has brought six new students to Inspiring Minds. 

Rogers is now a senior at both Hillside High School and the Durham School of the Arts. While at Inspiring Minds, Rogers has also taken on new leadership roles including one with a community service organization at his high school. 

After his graduation in June, Rogers plans to attend North Carolina Central University as a music major. 

“What excites me the most is learning the ins and outs of music,” Rogers said. “I feel like I know a lot but I know there’s a lot more I can learn because there’s always room for improvement. I feel like I’ve learned that through IM.” 

For Elzy, seeing the growth and personal development that Rogers and other students in the Durham Inspiring Minds chapter have gone through has been rewarding. 

Moving forward, Elzy plans to focus on connecting with local organizations to increase opportunities and the network for her future students. 

“We don’t want to be seen as competition, but as a collaborator and partner with many organizations,” Elzy said. “We believe that many hands make light work. We want to build a network and a community of resources so that the people that need the help have access to it.”