Life with Gracie: Why Steve Harvey’s camp for boys struck chord with Atlanta businessman

In the beginning, Benjamin Raymond was happy just to be able to help sponsor this camp for boys because, well, he’d walked in their shoes.

He was a grown man but remembered only a five-minute conversation with his father once when he was 7, and after that, he simply vanished from his life. He found him on the internet 20 years later, but he was soon gone again, locked away in prison for 25 years for selling drugs.

The boys, about 250 of them ages 13 to 18, who convened last week at the Rock Ranch just south of Atlanta to participate in the Steve and Marjorie Harvey Foundation’s National Mentoring Camp, could all rattle off similar stories. For various reasons, they have no father figure in their lives either.

It’s why the foundation has been hosting them — first in Dallas, Texas, and now in Barnesville — for the past nine years. It’s also why Raymond returns each year.

“I wish there had been something like this back when I was growing up,” he said.

And so you get why the Harveys’ efforts struck a nerve with Raymond back in 2009 when they first launched the weeklong summer mentoring program.

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Raymond had never seen anything like it. A camp situated on hundreds of acres of land, run by mostly black men for mostly black boys.

“I would’ve paid to get something like that when I was growing up,” he said.

Raymond grew up in Oshkosh, Wis., about 80 miles northeast of Madison. His mother and father were as different as day and night. Nancy Raymond was white and David Brumfield was black. If she had 100 bucks, she’d give you 99. And although he came from a loving family, he was more the black sheep baby of the crew.

Neither of them had the wherewithal to care for a child. He was in and out of jail. She suffered from bipolar disorder and drug addiction.

He was just 6 months old when she was signed into a mental institution and he was placed in a foster home. He was there nearly two years before she regained her freedom and custody of him.

That’s the story he shared last week with the boys he met, the same one he’d shared here in past years, the one he’d long been ashamed of and recently penned in a book titled “Playing the Game Without a Coach.”

You might have heard him talk about it recently on Harvey’s talk show. And if you’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing “The Blind Side,” the movie based on the life of Michael Oher, the homeless and traumatized boy turned All-American football player turned first-round NFL draft pick, you know where this is headed.

But let me back up.

Once they were reunited sometime in 1982, life for Nancy and Benjamin seemed to settle down. He excelled in sports, traveling with area basketball teams. By eighth grade, though, things took another bad turn. Nancy’s father suddenly died, and she started using drugs again.

“That collapsed her,” Raymond said. “She’d be gone for days, and when she’d return, she’d have black eyes from beatings.”

Raymond felt lost. He didn’t know who to turn to, who to trust. Then one day, he couldn’t take it anymore.

He told his mother she needed help, then called his coach.

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“That was my breaking point,” he said.

Raymond was an eighth-grader. Basketball and football were his safe haven. They kept him focused. Gave his life purpose.

“I was broken on the inside but borderline cocky on the outside,” he said.

He was so good at his game, he was allowed to play varsity ball in his freshman year. Over the next three years, he would stay with four different families, the last one a white family much like the one that took in Oher in “The Blind Side.”

They loved him as one of their own. He was the mixed kid on the family’s Christmas cards.

The star athlete for the North Spartans would become an All-State basketball player.

He graduated from high school in 1998 and headed to the University of Minnesota on a basketball scholarship, then graduated four years later with a business degree in marketing and communications.

He struggled for a while after that but soon found his footing in sales at Cintas, where he was named Rookie of the Year and top sales representative in the country. He left Cintas for a spot at Eli Lilly but soon realized the money he was making for the company, he could make for himself.

In 2008, he opened the Raymond Insurance Agency and quickly propelled it to a top 1 percent insurance-selling service agency and into Million Dollar Round Table status.

But he never forgot where he’d been. Reaching back to help others — sometimes mentoring, other times providing scholarships to needy students, sponsoring efforts like Harvey’s camp for boys — is like breathing.

After his first year at the camp in 2009, Raymond returned as a mentor and three years later on June 16 met Harvey’s oldest daughter Karli. They became quick friends and were married on Sept. 26, 2015.

On June 16, 2016, Benjamin Raymond II was born.

On Friday, he celebrated his boy’s first birthday at the place he wish had been there for him, the place his son won’t need but will witness him giving to boys who do.

Most people call that coming full circle. I call it playing the game without a coach and winning.

Last week, lucky for 250 fatherless boys, Raymond told them how it could be done.

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