“It’s funny that I’m in education, because where I grew up, there was not a lot of emphasis on school. But because of the mentors I’ve had throughout my life, I’ve developed a passion for service.
I’m from a tight-knit, blue collar neighborhood in Philadelphia where ‘quick money’ was the expectation. People looked for quick payoffs from different jobs, trying to get by. Growing up, I wasn’t exposed to much beyond my neighborhood.
But then I put on ice skates one time and I just fell in love with playing hockey. At the time, I didn’t realize it, but playing hockey was an escape. It was a way out of the neighborhood. In high school, I tried to focus on hockey and stay under the radar while the kids around me were starting to explore some bad paths. One day, a priest at my Catholic school asked me what I was going to do with my life. I hadn’t really thought about it.
I finished high school at a different school, a prep school, where I realized I wasn’t physically cut out for a future in hockey. But I was interested in physical education and thought that that might be my path. I connected with a coach at school named Jay Kellogg who was our P.E. teacher, and he welcomed me into his home. I’d often be at his house, spending time with his family, and I realized I kind of wanted to follow in his footsteps. Jay had attended college in Buffalo, so I decided that’s what I should do, too. I could study physical education and connect with people that way. I could help kids through sports.
Unfortunately, studying P.E. didn’t end up inspiring me very much. I learned a lot more about physiology than I did about how to help kids like the ones I grew up with. So when I finished undergrad, I went home and did nothing. I wasn’t working. I was just back in my box in my neighborhood and didn’t feel like I had a way out.
But the one thing that stuck with me from college was a book that I’d read by Don Hellison. He was a P.E. teacher who believed that you could use sports to help kids in cities, to teach them responsibility through physical activity. I started to think a lot about that book and about Don, and I realized he was teaching at UIC in Chicago. So I decided to enroll in the master’s program at UIC in the hopes of working with him. I thought his method was brilliant, and soon, as part of my master’s work, I was helping kids in struggling neighborhoods and making a difference.
At the end of that program, I started managing a restaurant on Taylor Street in Chicago, and it was a really good job at the time. But I kept feeling these nudges into education. Don would even come see me at the restaurant sometimes because he was worried I would drift away from what I had studied.
As I searched for a job in education, Don told me he had a colleague who was looking for faculty to join an alternative high school. I interviewed there and loved it. There were a small number of students and an alternative school just made sense to me. We didn’t even have a real school building—we were renting this former dentist’s office and doing our P.E. classes in the hallways. But from the first day, I knew it was where I was supposed to be.
That school eventually became the West40 Safe Schools. Karen Tiemann [program director of the Safe Schools] came aboard and now it’s 15 years later and I can’t imagine another career path. To have people like Jay, Don and Karen in your day-to-day life and shaping your experiences, that’s so valuable.
Today, at the Safe Schools, we inspire kids to be different, to be better. We try to make intentional efforts to live out what we say. And just like my mentors were always there for me, guiding me back to my true path, we’ll always be there for the kids we serve.”