After a life of second chances WCCC student looks to help others
Emmanuel “Manny” Lebbie is all about second chances.
The 23-year-old Greensburg man whose mother went missing in a civil war in the West African nation of Sierra Leone when he was a toddler has had his share of second chances. Now he says he wants to give back.
Lebbie, who is student government president at Westmoreland County Community College, will graduate May 9 with an associate’s degree.
He plans to head to Seton Hill University to complete his bachelor’s degree in social work and a career in human services where he can offer struggling teens the kind of hope he was offered repeatedly as he nearly slipped through holes in society’s safety nets.
“The more I went to school, the more I realized that what I wanted to do is to empower kids, to give them the hope people have given me,” Lebbie said.
Friends and teachers at WCCC and the Adelphoi Village Robert Ketterer Charter School, where Lebbie attended high school after getting in trouble with the law in Philadelphia, say he’s already doing that.
Adelphoi Principal Brook Pierce said human services is a perfect match for the slim, energetic young man who is an administrative intern at the school.
“That is his calling,” Pierce said. “He comes back and he talks to the kids, he supports them, tells them what he’s gone through and that they can make it. He’s had to work two, sometimes three jobs, just to manage, but he does it. ”
Talking a mile a minute on a sunny spring afternoon, Lebbie recounted his journey.
“My mother went missing in the war in Sierra Leone. I get flashes of her sometimes, but I really can’t remember much. Then grandmother took me and raised me. When I was 5 or 6, I moved in with my aunt and uncle. They were my super heroes. They put me in private school in Africa. After primary school I moved in with my dad. My dad was a cop in Africa. My stepmother had moved to Philadelphia and she filed for us to come there,” he said.
For a 13-year-old who had spent his life in Freetown, Sierra Leona’s bustling capital city on the Atlantic shore, the culture shock was jarring.
Lebbie says he got into fights all the time.
“I was bad. I was fighting. I was stealing,” he said.
At 14, he was living in a homeless shelter. Eventually he was arrested and taken before a juvenile court judge who threatened to send him back to Africa.
“But my probation officer stepped in front of the judge and said ‘Give him a chance. Send him to Adelphoi,’” Lebbie said.
Within days, the 15-year-old was on a journey 250 miles across the state to a rural small town where a charter school housed about 250 other troubled youths sent there on court order.
When Lebbie learned Adelphoi offered graduates scholarships to attend WCCC, he buckled down and finished high school there.
College proved a challenge.
Not knowing what he wanted to do, Lebbie enrolled in WCCC’s culinary program. Within a year, he knew he’d made a mistake. Suddenly he was back in a supervised living program Adelphoi operated, working multiple minimum wage jobs and saving every penny.
At 19, he bought a car, moved out and decided to party.
Lebbie said a soul-searing moment when someone pulled a gun on him after a party, sent him reeling. “I went home. I saw the bible on my table. …Got down on my knees and said ‘God, what am I supposed to do with my life? You took me from Africa to Greensburg. …And I was thinking about my mother and crying. Tears were streaming down my face,” he said.
He decided to call Adelphoi to ask about restoring his scholarship.
School officials eventually agreed to renew it. Lebbie was determined to succeed.
The birth of his daughter, Jhana, now 2½, added to his resolve.
“Her name means ‘God is merciful.’ She has definitely changed my life. Being a father has shown me the heart of God,” he said.
Lynna Thomas, a counselor who works with special needs populations at WCCC, said Lebbie is a light who shines to students facing trouble.
“No matter what challenge he faces, he figures out what he has to do, what he has learned. … He is warm and caring and the way he models it to other students is wonderful. On one occasion we had a young man who had come in and was very uncertain about being on campus. We ran into Manny and he came up to him, greeted him warmly and told him about students who can do things here. I could see his face light up. When there are students who have come from challenging situations, Manny helps them see how this can work for them,” Thomas said.
For now, he’s working part time as a cook at Appleby’s, completing his internship at Adelphoi, preparing for a paid internship at the Westmoreland/Fayette Workforce Investment Board, getting ready to tackle Seton Hill and applying to become a U.S. citizen. Although Lebbie has a green card that grants him permanent resident status in the United States, citizenship is his goal.
“America is the greatest, most confusing country in the world because people don’t understand that they have it good here, that you can make a change here,” he said.
Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, [email protected] or via Twitter .