Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Spotlight: Gary Van

I always tell people Gary Van is my heart. I have known him since I moved to Dallas. He was 11 years old and shy when I met him.

The shyness didn't last long. As soon as he entered junior high, girls became his big past time. He became the "mac daddy," as the boys liked to call themselves.

Gary grew up in East Dallas, where I live. The "gang" in our neighborhood is 223. They wore red as much as possible and threw up a sign that meant "East Grand" (the street that ran through our neighborhood). I never sensed that these guys were dangerous. To me, they all seemed to be gang member wanna-be's. Some were more troublesome and annoying than others, but never in a way that threatened my safety.

Once in junior high, Gary seemed to go down hill. He began getting in trouble a lot at school. Each day after school he always had stories about what this or that teacher had said to him or how he had been kicked out of some teacher's class. He expressed his frustration that teachers would cuss at him. As a good adult, I tried to convince him that it must be something he was doing to provoke all of these teachers. Gary used to tell me he just wished he could have a recorder in his pocket so I could hear what the teachers said and the way they talked to him.

Now I know Gary was no angel at school. But it never made sense to me because I can only think of one time in the 14 years I've known him that he lost his temper in front of me (not at me, though) and wouldn't calm down when I asked him to. Gary's a comedian. Always has been. I wish I'd have had the connections to get him into stand up comedy. He's such a story teller...always making people laugh. But, from what he told me, the school started associating him with his neighborhood, East Grand.

In high school, when he walked into the school, they would pull him aside and check his nails to see if had been smoking weed. They made assumptions about him based on his friends and were constantly questioning him. He talked back to teachers and got into fights. He began getting shuffled from alternative school to alternative school. I found out later that he had also begun selling drugs during this time period.

After being sent to an alternative school in DeSoto, he gave up. He used to tell me that the teachers got rid of him because they didn't want to deal with him. While in DeSoto, he didn't get in trouble. He realized that he wasn't the bad kid they made him out to be. But his reputation followed him. He went to a different DISD school than he attended before DeSoto, only to find the assistant principal from his old school had transferred to the new school he was attending.

He ended up dropping out of school and getting his diploma by paying $350 to some online high school in Florida. They sent him a large test packet. Once completed, all he had to do was send it back in and, viola, he received a diploma.

I convinced him to enroll in community college. He did. But only lasted for a semester. Instead, he took a job at Sam's, where he works to this day. Gary is now 24-years old. He will have six years of service at Sam's next month. He has since gone back to school to become certified in air conditioning repair. He is working on going into business with a friend of his.

The other day he called me wanting to get a little boy into the summer program that we offer. He explained that he's been spending a lot of time with this little boy, helping with homework and trying to influence his behavior. He told me that the little boy's brothers all have dads that are involved in their life. This one little boy is the only one in the family who doesn't have that and so he acts out. I don't think Gary realizes how much that parallells his own situation.

Though I've known Gary and know what a great guy he is, I never expected him to mentor other children and take the role so seriously. But he is. Gary wants this child to have opportunity--educational and otherwise. He was very insistent about enrolling him in our summer program instead of just sending him to a rec center to play all summer. He remembered what the program was like when he was a part of it many years ago and wants this child to experience that as well.

Community. Resources. Relationships.

With the kids and adults I know who live in these communities, mentoring happens in ways we don't even realize or recognize. Sometimes all that is needed is knowledge of and access to additional resources that can help support those efforts.
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