New Orleans businessman lifts students up

Life's purpose

NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - Some New Orleans students are flying high, thanks to strong academics and a local man who enjoys lifting people up.

Al Edwards is a businessman who says he looks beyond profits. His life's purpose is giving others wings. Edwards inspects his Piper aircraft under clear skies at Lakefront airport, preparing to take students at Moton Elementary School for a ride.

"It inspires them to have a small interest in aviation and to strive to continue working hard in the classroom," he said.

High achievement earned them a spot on the plane.

"You get a good future if you keep your grades up," said one student eager to take the flight.

Al Ely Edwards is president of Ely Edwards Enterprises. For the last five years his company has invested in taking dreams higher.

"We created the flight for excellence as an enrichment activity for youth in local public elementary schools," he said.

The students were excited as the plane lifted from the ground. Home looks different when you're more than 1,000 feet in the air.

"In 15 minutes, they get a whole new perspective on the city," Edwards said.

"I thought it was exciting because I got to see the city in a whole other light," one wide-eyed student explained.

When Edwards is on the ground, he's busy running Ely Edwards Construction. He oversees finishing touches on a Gentilly gem his company is putting on the market.

"We got into real estate investment in 1999," he said. "In 2005 we were doing just fine, and then the storm did for us what it did for everyone else. It knocked us off our peg and changed our business plan forever," he said.

Some non-profit agencies called on Edwards to use his housing resources to try to quell a growing homeless problem after Katrina. He said his company began an involvement with Unity of  Greater New Orleans in 2006. Now, the majority of the 90 properties his company owns are used to house the less fortunate.

In Broadmoor, he slashed rents on properties to be affordable for single mothers with pre-teen daughters. He said the girls can focus on school and not worry about the safety of their neighborhoods.

He comes from a long line of doers.

Edwards was born in Houston. His father, Al Ely Edwards Sr. was a state representative in Texas.

"In 1979 he got the bill passed to make Juneteenth a legal state holiday in Texas," he said. "As a young child I had huge inspiration."

His mother was an educator and longtime principal.

"I came to New Orleans in 1990, went to Dillard, got a degree in pre-med there," he said.

Even though Edwards' career path went in a different direction, he never forgot his Alma Mater. He gives annual scholarships to Dillard students to help them along the way. Students like Glenn Beverly.

"I had already went broke on school supplies and books. Then there's the real life situation of food on the table," Beverly said.

"My job was not making ends meet."

Beverly had a wife and a newborn to take care of as he struggled in his last semester at Dillard. The scholarship was a lifeline. Now, he's a Dillard graduate training at Liberty National. He is starting a career his family can depend on thanks to Edwards' gift.

"I feel like I always wanted to be a philanthropist, just didn't have the means," he said. "To see other African-American people doing it has that much more effect on me," he said.

Edwards is a major contributor to the Salvation Army's Angel Tree program. It provides toys for kids at the shelter for Christmas.

"Edwards gathers toys and gets his friends in the to community to collect toys and items for those children," said Salvation Army Area Commander David Worthy.

"I'm also a full time student finishing my MBA at Tulane," Edwards said.

The husband and father of two small children says he wanted to further his education to be a model for his kids to keep reaching for the stars. He earned his aviation certification years ago, and now it's a way to reward the hard work of students, helping them to soar.

"You have to do good with your grades and pay attention to the teacher. That will get you a reward in life," said one 7th grade boy after landing.

"I would like to be a pilot one day too," he said.

So when the wheels come down, Edwards has made an indelible impression on these kids as they chart their futures with just a few minutes of flying high.

Copyright 2016 WVUE. All rights reserved.