Twenty years ago I started a job that changed my life. And although I've been gone from that job for eight years now, I was reminded this week that job isn't nearly finished changing me.
The job was with Eckerd Youth Alternatives. I was a counselor working with middle and high school students in a wilderness program. The kids were labeled at-risk, troubled, hopeless, and countless other terms to suggest they were much better suited to live in the middle of the Croatan National Forest than their communities.
The first year I spent with those kids I was all about the labels. There were days I coined one or two of my own that were far less complimentary than the standard ones. Over time, though, as I got to know them better, built relationships with them, I came to understand the label they really deserved was, well - just plain kids. Kids who needed someone to listen to what made them mad in the world and not someone to tell them why they should never be angry at all. Kids who needed someone to identify a thing or two they were doing right to at least soften up the endless lists of failures others had attached to them. They needed someone to give them permission to dream. And not just because that's what "normal" kids did, but because someone believed those dreams could come true.
I'm glad Facebook and the social media explosion in general came along when it did. It's allowed me to keep up with several of these kids - now young men. Anyone who's ever worked in a mentoring position has at one time or another said - if I can just make a difference in one life, it will be worth it. Sounds cliche, doesn't it? But when you start seeing teenagers turn into young adults covered in labels any parent would be proud of, and you know you had a chance to at least in some small way contribute to that, then there's nothing cliche about it. It's all worth it.
I follow one young man who week after week defends the most disadvantaged in our society with Facebook posts that are filled with a passion and intelligence that many of our elected officials sadly lack.
I've watched another get married, have a baby, and travel a thousand miles or so every few weeks to work on a ship to support them both. And then return home to settle into the role of a doting dad.
They both make me proud.
But this week I was moved by one of those young men who's always held a special place with me. Several years ago I actually had the privilege of officiating his wedding. In the Virgin Islands no less. At the time, I thought he and I were caught up in one of those crazy circles of life that loops us around from a point of chaotic introduction to an inexplicable point of connectedness. But this week, that young man, Tyler, showed me that circle back then was filled with gaps.
This week, though, the circle felt complete when he shared something that made this mentor suddenly feel like the one being mentored.
Tyler has been working in the movie and television and the anything to get his face on a camera business for years. And a handsome face it is. Earlier this week he shared his latest creation on social media: a short 10 minute movie called The Moped Diaries. When I watched it I was struck by how much the story reflected his life. One of overcoming challenges. One of picking a story and living it out, refusing to let anything or anyone alter the plot. But, what stuck out even more - I was basking in the creation of a kid who once came looking for help and was now a young man offering it to the world with his movie.
His story is timely for so many people in my life who've faced or are facing hardships. This is a story of hope and determination they can be conquered.
I hope you'll take 10 minutes and watch Tyler's film. I hope you'll consider his message. A quick warning - there is some brief adult humor and a quick glimpse at Tyler's backside. (Thank God I saw that a time or two when I was on shower house duty back in the Eckerd days or that scene might have shocked me).
I'm proud of you my friend Tyler Nilson.
Click the following link to watch the movie: The Moped Diaries