Michael Nichols

Michael Nichols

Michael Nichols has seen more of the US than most. He rattles off quite the impressive nationwide tour to me as we talk – Tennessee, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Missouri, and Hampton Roads, not necessarily in that order. At a certain age, travel and relocation can be exciting and full of fresh beginnings, but for Mike, each move as a child brought with it new pain. He was shuffled back and forth between two households that had grown full of hate and anger as divorce raged, and he did what some young people do—turned to petty crime. He credits getting caught with marijuana at 18 and charged with a felony for actually getting him cleaned up. In fact, without the charge and subsequent probation, Mike feels certain his spiral would have continued downward and prison or death would have followed. Instead, he got clean, served his probation years back in Tennessee with his mother, and met a woman to love. Sadly, a miscarriage brought with it too much destruction and the relationship ended, a tough blow for anyone to handle. Mike did what he grew up doing- he moved away. His course this time was set to Hampton Roads, VA where Mike began studying at TCC, until a friendship became unstable and forced him to suddenly vacate his living situation and move into the Union Mission Ministries (UMM.)

For most, the above description of such a tumultuous existence happens only in the movies. And if it happens in real life, we certainly wouldn’t expect the main player to be sitting there like Mike is – telling me his story with a permanent smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye. “I’m a positive person,” he says, “I think I realized that what I was studying at TCC- funeral Services- wasn’t for me, even though it was good to be in school.”

I’m nodding along, inclined to agree. If he’s had this much turmoil in life and can be as pleasant a young man as I know him to be, he needs a different career. I’m busy suggesting TCC’s Hospitality Industry courses for him, because I can see clearly a life for him that could include travel to exotic places as an adult that could be much more fun than his childhood. He nods, this could be an option. But, diving is his passion. There was apparently a calm in the ocean that always worked for Mike and as he learned to dive he fell in love with it. He has a dream and it’s a relatively straightforward one- get certified to become a diving instructor, dive, teach, and eventually get his own boat to live on and run a diving business out of. He envisions a life of relative seclusion, and a constant conversation with the sea.

Do I hope for more for him – maybe a healthy and supportive relationship in there somewhere? Sure. And we talk about it a bit – he might like that too, one day. For now though he wants to depend mostly on himself and the inner strength that kept him afloat amidst these challenges. I can’t say I blame him at all. Mike found The David program at UMM because he was resilient and he wasn’t willing to give up on himself.

Through The Davids, Mike has been able to start working odd jobs, earn money, save money, attend Together We Can Foundation’s Smart Transitions portfolio classes, and perhaps most importantly, just get “a little less stressed.” I laugh when he tells me this though it’s a topic the Davids and I cover in our classes – stress makes the notion of self-reflection and assessment pretty tough. How can one really be expected to “plan” their life out when they simply are more focused on whether or not they’ll be able to eat next week?

And that, perhaps above all else, is how these programs truly serve the youth of the community. The David program allows for young men to get their feet under them without fear and anxiety, or at least, with far less than they’d ever have on the street. The Life Work Portfolio Class from Together We Can Foundation gives them confidence, and a lens through which they can suddenly see themselves as something much more than perhaps what they’ve been told their whole lives. This combination of support and resources can allow a young person to hope, and even dream a little. And that, above all else may be the saving grace that is needed. Without it I wonder what may have become of Michael, who, as if on cue gets another twinkle in his eyes. “You know, once I’ve got my own boat, I can go out diving and treasure-hunting. You’ve seen it right?” He’s referring to television documentaries describing real life treasure hunters that unearth rare finds from long forgotten shipwrecks in the ocean. For Mike, there is more than just a world of treasure beneath the surface of the ocean, there is hope and a sense of passion that he can’t wait to discover. I can only hope that with the help of organizations like Together We Can and Union Mission Ministries and the donors who support their work in the community, he can not only follow his dream, but find what fulfills him.

DeAngelo Thompson

DeAngelo Thompson

DeAngelo Thompson wants you to stay in school. He wants you to put forth the effort and fight for what you want out of life. He wishes he had done the same, though fortunately, he’s got a few more chances. I say, “hindsight is 20/20,” and DeAngelo chuckles, then shrugs. I met DeAngelo as a student in one of the Together We Can Foundation’s Smart Transitions Life Work Portfolio Course. He was a good student and he impressed me, so I followed up with him. He and I sat down in the dining room of Union Mission Ministers (UMM) in Norfolk, discussing how and why he got there, and most importantly, what’s next.

For DeAngelo of Deep Creek, Chesapeake, the story seems all too familiar. He fell in with the wrong crowd in school and started misbehaving. The behavior eventually got him expelled from high school, his biggest regret. His parents grew frustrated and eventually kicked him out of the house. He describes a painful moment when he showed back up and his mom told him that the best she could offer was her front porch for the night. There were a few months of bouncing around to other family member’s homes, but it was a tough time and there didn’t appear to be a lot of options. Finally, his grandparents suggested a program they were familiar with at Union Mission Ministries called the David Program. It recruited young men (DeAngelo is to date the youngest David,) into the shelter where they would be part of a group expected to live respectfully in the shelter, work in the shelter- and/or at employment they could find, deposit percentages of their money into a savings account monitored by the program’s director, Eric Metcalf, and eventually earn their way out of the shelter and into private housing where their first month’s rent and security deposits would be matched by UMM. This program has steep expectations and requires the gentlemen to earn what they want most- security, respect, stability. And nothing comes without effort and commitment.

The Together We Can Foundation partners with UMM to provide our Smart Transitions Life-Work Portfolio Class. As Program Director and instructor, I have the opportunity to work with The Davids for roughly one month of workshops where we discuss and research both their long-term and short-term goals. We try to figure out the best ways to achieve them and make sure there’s a solid reason behind the desire. Sometimes a career choice is simply a stepping stone to something bigger and sometimes it’s a true life’s passion. There’s never really a wrong answer, but knowing which this is by encouraging introspection and evaluation of the choices everyone’s made to get where they are in life can be really useful. Throughout these workshops and discussions the men get to know one another even better, and I get to know them well enough to help them put together a final, culminating professional presentation portfolio. It includes their resumes, certificates of achievements, personal letters of recommendation, and a headshot that makes most of these men feel a new sense of pride at how professional they can look. As our photographer often reminds them when they have put forth the effort to wear a tie and look good: “There you go, you look like management now.”

DeAngelo feels confident about his portfolio. He is currently working at a temp agency but he sees more on the horizon. With this portfolio in hand, he believes he will be taken more seriously during interviews. Though he was expelled from school, he hasn’t let it get him down and he is currently taking classes for the GED and expects to have it under his belt by the end of the year, and then, he hopes that college will be an option. He likes the idea of psychology and learning how the mind works. Hindsight may be 20/20, but for DeAngelo, the future looks pretty sharp too.