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‘Move-in Day Mafia’ decks out dorm rooms for surprised Paul Quinn college students

IMG_0155.JPG Taller woman in white top puts hands to head of smaller woman, wearing mask, in light blue top.
Bill Zeeble
TeeJ Mercer, creator of the move-in-day-Mafia, embraces the masked Paul Quinn College freshman, Taylor Dixon. The 18 year-old just learned Mercer’s organization will fill her dorm with all kinds of items, from necessities to niceties, all free. They include a mini-refrigerator, microwave oven, television and rug for the concrete floor.

A handful of Paul Quinn college freshman were surprised recently when they arrived at their dorm to move in. Media crews were waiting to capture their shock as a few learned they’d receive free dorm supplies from a new non-profit, which calls itself “Move-in Day Mafia.”

As Freshman Taylor Dixon walked into the dorm at Paul Quinn college, a stranger with big, funky black and beige eyeglasses was there to greet her. TeeJ Mercer had a little surprise for Dixon. All her dorm needs would now be taken care of. Dixon was dumbstruck. Her benefactor, Mercer, was ecstatic.

“Oooh look at your face! I’m so happy to meet you,” exclaimed Mercer, reading the shock in the student’s eyes. Mercer then delighted in quizzing the 18 year-old about her dorm needs.

“Do you have a refrigerator?” asked Mercer.

“Oh, no, I don't have that,” replied Dixon.

“You’ve got a refrigerator now!” Mercer said. She then continued the quiz, revealing that Dixon’s dorm would also be stocked with a microwave, television and more.

These two had never met before this day. TeeJ Mercer is the founder and creator of Move-in Day Mafia, or, as she said, “the Godfather.”

"There is an army, a whole Mafia, that has been working diligently for this day. We've been rooting for you. And we didn't even know who you are,” Mercer said. “So you have to know that you are starting this new journey with, already, a crew behind you and at your back. We are not going to let you fail."

Stunned by her big surprise, Dixon took a few minutes to gather herself.

“I almost burst into tears,” said Dixon. “It was honestly wonderful to get a surprise like that from people who give back to their community.”

Dixon’s mother, Sharonda Gray, a Dallas ISD fifth grade teacher, drove her daughter to Paul Quinn on her lunch break.

"None of this was expected, like, I am truly surprised,” Gray said. “Overwhelmed… it’s a blessing, I was planning to go get the rest of the things that she needed this weekend. So I just think I got one less thing, it's a lot of less things, that I have to worry about.”

Taking some of the money worries out of college was the motivation behind Mercer’s program. She's a philanthropist, motivational speaker, a former TV editor and producer, and self-described "Jesus Girl." She graduated from Howard University and had already done a lot of fundraising for HBCUs, or Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Then, she met a college freshman just out of foster care. Her foster family dropped her off at school, and disappeared. The student didn’t know what she needed or how to get help.

Mercer paused to hold back from crying before continuing the story.

"I had to think to myself, there are kids who have to actually show up and fend for themselves. And I remember when I was in college, I would call my mom like, ‘I know it's payday, so can I have $50 in my account?’ And these kids don't have that," Mercer said.

Now, TeeJ Mercer says they will--thanks to Move-in Day Mafia; even though she says colleagues originally questioned the name.

“I said, we're going to actually turn that term into something good because the Mafia takes care of its own. And that's what the Move-in Day Mafia does for these kids. We take care of their own. From this day forward, they will not have to be alone.”

Paul Quinn College is the inaugural beneficiary for Mercer’s program, which is intended for HBCU’s. Maurice West, Paul Quinn Dean of External Affairs, says 13 freshmen are getting help this semester.

“Either they were aged out of the foster care system,” West said, or “secondly, they might’ve had a need; resources, financials and all the like, and thirdly, just some good young people who just needed a little bit of inspiration or encouragement."

IMG_0129.JPG Smiling, Black woman with long, dark brown/red curly hair over her left shoulder, with big, unusually shaped black and beige glasses, sits at a table in a room with other chairs, tables anda couch.  Her white T-shirt reads, in purple type, Move-in Day Mafia.
Bill Zeeble
TeeJ Mercer created the Move-in-Day Mafia to help financially strapped students concentrate more on studies instead of worrying over pricey dorm room needs. Mercer calls herself “The Godfather” of her organization.

Mercer, who doesn't have kids of her own, calls these students her babies. She says she’ll spend the rest of her life helping them, and can't wait for the Move-in Day Mafia's family to grow.

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.