Gary Shackleford, a probation officer for Hennepin County, has been volunteering most of his life and learned the habit directly from a man who did the same.
Gary grew up in upstate New York in the projects. His dad was an abusive alcoholic, and his life was often frightening and painful. He had plenty of opportunities to make destructive choices, and many of his friends did just that.
Gary feels his rescue came in the form of a good man who believed in investing in youth — a man who spent his own hard-earned money to start a Boys Club in the neighborhood. He remembers the year George Chard started working in the neighborhood and he remembers Chard’s honest, hard-working ways, his kind-hearted response to the young hardened boys in the neighborhood, and the integrity he demonstrated as he built a Boys Community Club on Gary’s streets.
George Chard understood how important it was for boys living in poverty to learn from new experiences and to develop new dreams for their own lives. He was committed to the community, and the boys responded positively to his leadership. Gary remembers snowmobiling and camping with this club as some of his fondest childhood memories.
Because of Gary’s painful experiences with his own father, he grew up wanting to be a different kind of man. In many ways, George Chard showed him the way. George felt strongly about reaching out to boys who were getting in trouble to let them know one thing: Not all men are destructive and irresponsible — and you don’t have to be either.
As a probation officer, Gary sees kids every day who did not have positive adult role models and whose choices usually cost them dearly. In almost all cases, the boys he works with grew up without a father figure. Many are able to name each of the bad influences that helped shape them. And as research continuously shows, over 75 percent of prison inmates grew up in father-absent homes. The challenge for kids growing up without dads is real.
Twelve years ago, Gary heard about Kinship and became a mentor for a seven-year-old boy named Elijah. He describes the early Elijah as a shy and very reserved boy who craved some male attention in his life. In time, Elijah became comfortable enough to tell Gary how much he appreciated him. He told Gary that often, when his friends were getting into trouble, he would sit back and think about how Gary would feel if he followed their ways.
Elijah often changed his choices knowing that Gary would be disappointed and hurt if he did something stupid. It helped him grow up and make choices that have led him to his life today as a college student. He is the first person from his family to attend college, and they are all very proud.
Gary and Elijah remain friends today. They attend Sanctuary Covenant together on occasion and still like to hang out. Gary has moved his volunteer work to his church where he is involved with outreach and mission trips to Honduras. He works with the homeless and poor to build houses and feed them as they struggle through their daily challenges.
When asked why he mentors and why he continues to give so much of his time to others, Gary replied, “We have to show our youth who we are and what we believe by example. Someday, something will trigger those memories and help them make better choices. Every guy should give back to the community. Positive adults can
make all the difference today.”
In other words…live well, love much, and pass it on.
For more information about the 130 Kinship Kids waiting for mentors in your community, please call 612-588-4655
Nancy Torrison is recruitment and communications director for Kinship of Greater Minneapolis.