Adventist Philanthropist Stewart Bainum's Legacy Comes Alive in "Southeast 67" Documentary

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Seventh-day Adventist philanthropist and hotel magnate Stewart Bainum died on February 12, 2014 of complications from pneumonia. Bainum was 94. He made a fortune as the founder of Choice Hotels International, the world's second-largest hotel chain, and during his lifetime, he used his wealth to support education and students who needed financial help to make education feasible. But Bainum did not come from money.

According to a remembrance published in the Adventist Review, he attended two Adventist schools in his early years. In the 1930's while attending Mt. Vernon Academy in Ohio (which will close after this school year because it is not financially viable), Bainum was forced to leave the school when he could not pay his tuition.

Many years later as a successful businessman, Bainum remembered his early struggles. He created a College Fund in 1968, which in time became the Commonweal Foundation. In the late 1980's Commonweal took up the cause of support for young, inner-city students in need of financial support for their education. In 1988, Commonweal became a key partner with the "I Have a Dream" Program. The Adventist Review article notes that Bainum promised to fund the college tuition of 67 seventh grade students at Kramer Junior High School in Washington, D.C., if they finished high school. Nearly 75 percent of the 67 “Dreamers,” as they were called, graduated high school, compared to only 27 percent of their peers. In addition, of the 10 that Stewart sent to his alma mater, Mount Vernon Academy, nine graduated.

A new documentary entitled "Southeast 67" tells the story of the students whose education Bainum funded. The film's synopsis describes the dire situation faced by many of the Dreamers:

Devastated by the arrival of crack cocaine in the 1980s, Washington, DC became known as our nation’s “Murder Capital.” Growing up at the epicenter of this violence—in Southeast DC—67 rising seventh graders were promised college scholarships by area businessman Stewart Bainum through the I Have a Dream program, a national movement to provide kids in underserved communities the opportunity to attend college. Southeast 67 focuses on the students’ struggles to reconcile the dream of college with daily survival in a community rife with violence, poverty and addiction.

2014 marked the 20th anniversary of the Dreamers' high school graduations. "Southeast 67" Director/Producer/Writer Betsy Cox said that the Bainum family, whose philanthropic work still focuses on providing educational opportunities for under-served inner-city students, wanted to follow up and to hear from the Dreamers about both the successes and the failures of the program. They hired a photojournalist and Cox to document the stories of several Dreamers and to find out what worked and what didn't.

Cox says she can remember the precise moment she realized what an incredible documentary film the stories would make:

It was before the first frame was shot; before I had the chance to do anything more than scan a few of the Dreamers’ oral histories. It was at a dinner to launch the project: an evening for the Dreamers to reconnect with each other and [educators] Steve Bumbaugh and Phyllis Rumbarger—and (far less importantly) be introduced to me. From the moment the Dreamers stepped in the door, it was clear that what that dinner really was, was a joyful, loud, loving family reunion. I watched in awe, and I immediately knew that if I were lucky enough to be entrusted with their experiences, I and many others would be changed in countless ways.

In Cox's words, the film "Blow[s] up the simplistic bootstrap narrative of success." The film matches raw, previously unaired archival film footage with photographs and with present-day footage. Interviews with the students, now in their thirties, testify to the power of generosity and of Bainum's desire to give people opportunities to thrive, and to the courage of the remarkable students whose lives he impacted.  Though this month the world lost an important business leader and philanthropist, his life and work continues its ripple effects in the lives of the students Stewart Bainum believed in.

"Southeast 67" debuted Friday, February 27 at the D.C. Independent Film Festival. Cox hopes to get it into the hands of educators following its premiere.

WATCH: "Southeast 67" trailer.

Jared Wright is managing editor of SpectrumMagazine.org.