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David Merritt doesn't look much older than the high school students he works with in Detroit.

But the 29-year-old is firmly committed to making a difference in the lives of young people who could use a helping hand. Merritt wants these teens to understand they have options in life — and the ability to make their dreams a reality.

In Detroit, where 1 out of 3 students does not graduate, this is exactly the kind of encouragement that's needed.

"I've always had a heart for young people," Merritt says. "And I wanted to dedicate my life to others, and do whatever I could to help young people do positive things."

That's why he started his casual clothing company Merit, based off his last name and the principles he seeks to impart to Detroit youth.

Merritt is an entrepreneur with a store in Ann Arbor, and a website: MeritGoodness.com. But he wanted his business to be more than an avenue for making money. He also aimed to offer young people the opportunities and support he had growing up in Metro Detroit.

So he melded his clothing company with the nonprofit Give Merit. For every item sold, 20 percent of the purchase goes to a scholarship fund for the 20 children the nonprofit works with in Detroit. Nineteen of the students attend Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a charter school which started four years ago in northwest Detroit.

Merritt says he has raised nearly $20,000 from his clothing sales. And he and his partner, Kuhu Saha, executive director of Give Merit, aim to raise enough money to provide each student in the program a $5,000 college scholarship.

Every Merit purchase helps shape the fate of a Detroit high school student. That's why Merritt calls the student program Fate.

"It's a two-pronged approach to impacting youth and education in the city of Detroit," says Merritt, adding he wants his students to abide by three goals: inspire, believe and contribute. "How do we improve high school graduation rates and college access?"

Merritt says it took some time to find a Detroit school willing to work with his program. But he found a match in the school founded by University of Michigan alum and former basketball star Jalen Rose. That's partly because Merritt shares a similar background, as former captain of the University of Michigan basketball team.

Give Merit is in its third year of working with students at Jalen Rose.

The 20 youths who participate spend one Saturday a month attending a workshop organized by Merritt and Saha. Those workshops are often on the UM campus, or nearby. Each Detroit student is paired with a college student mentor.

"We want them to embrace their education and become world-class citizens," says Saha. "That means constant exposure to a college campus, and also partnering with businesses and nonprofits."

The workshop days are intense but also fun, Merritt says, and business partners have included Zingerman's, Plante Moran, GlobalHue and Google.

Merritt believes that in Detroit, many students no longer see education as a stepping stone to their goals. He wants to show students the link between school and their futures.

"I want to help these young people have aspirations and be able to see what they are truly capable of," Merritt says. "It's not only getting them to graduate and getting them accepted into college, but also exposing them to different career paths."

Merritt also wants the teens to become better citizens. His parents are the founders of Straight Gate International Church in Detroit, and he hopes some of the students will eventually return to Detroit as role models for others. Merritt hopes to open another retail store in Detroit where students could learn about different aspects of running a business. He hopes to expand his reach to 100 young people, and bring in other schools.

"We're building awareness of what we're doing," Merritt says.

Check it out.

Ingrid Jacques is deputy editorial page editor of The Detroit News.

ijacques@detroitnews.com

@Ingrid_Jacques

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