“...More than just a program. It’s a village.” - From a poem written and read by Behailu Academy student DeShaun Lynch at the Academy’s Mosaic Awards on April 27.
Through a scoop of chicken salad here and a cup of coffee there, Deedee Mills’ soon-to-be four restaurants are transforming lives as a large funding stream for Behailu Academy, her village.
Mills owns and operates two popular Dilworth eateries, The Mayobird and The Summit Roomwhich sit side-by-side on East Blvd. She claims to not be a restaurateur even though she’s opening two more restaurants this summer, The Pack House and Joe and Nosh. Just like The Mayobird and Summit Room, 10 percent of net profits will go to support Behailu Academy, an after-school refuge for at-risk youth to find peace and opportunity through art.
Mills hails from Williamston, N.C., a town of 5,500 in the eastern part of the state and her small-town roots shine through in her business ventures. The Mayobird is an ode to chicken salad, a longtime picnic favorite that Mills grew up loving. Within five minutes of conversation it’s easy to see that Mills loves people and providing a sense of community for everyone, especially those who cannot easily find it on their own.
In 2011 after some soul-searching, Mills made the decision to walk away from 17 years at what many would consider a dream job with the Carolina Panthers. A year later she opened Behailu Academy in NoDa.
Why art? In a word: Bobby. Mills met Bobby when he was just 11 years old through her work at The Harvest Center of Charlotte, an organization which works with homeless men, women and children. Mills mentored Bobby for years, yet by the time he was 18, he had found his way into a gang and eventually prison.
“I saw people who had become millionaires who came from this environment,” Mills said. “Sports can bring people out because it’s a level playing field, pardon the pun. I knew sports works, but what happens if you’re not an athlete? Bobby was not an athlete.”
That was a lightbulb moment for Mills. Art can also be a level playing field.
“Art is therapeutic,” Mills said. “When kids can’t talk about something, they can draw, they can write or sing.”
Mills relationship with Bobby was the catalyst that would take Mills out of the comfort of the Panthers front office and into a relatively unknown world.
“I don’t know restaurants or art,” Mills said. “But I know how to find people who do know.”
Behailu Academy is named after Mills’ son, Cannon Behailu, who she adopted from Ethiopia when he was just five months old. Behailu was the name the orphanage had given him and it means strength overcomes obstacles. Mills is no stranger to obstacles.
She has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, is raising her now almost 9-year-old son as a single parent, started Behailu Academy and the restaurants to fund the organization. “I realized quickly that I needed a for-profit business to fund the nonprofit,” she said.
In the Behailu’s first three years of operation, 100 percent of its high school seniors, 18 total, graduated from high school and all are enrolled in college, military or the workforce.
“We want [Behailu] to provide opportunity,” Mills said. “We want the kids to see they have gifts. They come to us with gifts.”
If you’re looking for a great breakfast or lunch spot, head to The Mayobird and don’t forget to “round up” when asked. All extra change from each purchase goes to Behailu. The Summit Room does the same for dinner.
Photo: Deedee is pictured with Lexi Williams a Behailu Academy graduate who now works at Mayobird.