Legacies: What We Leave Behind

As seen in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on 10/18/15

I was one among hundreds who attended an unusual book launch at St. Thomas Academy on Oct. 6. Sitting in the gymnasium bearing his name, family, friends, fans, and colleagues of the late Vince Flynn celebrated the release of the 14th thriller in his Mitch Rapp series.

While advertised as a book launch, it was more a tribute to the St. Paul native, who died in 2013 at age 47. Granted, there was a nod to author Kyle Mills, who developed Flynn’s two-page draft into the novel titled “The Survivor.” But the night belonged to Flynn.

Whether from his brother Tim or his golf buddy, Rush Limbaugh, there was a common message: Flynn was loyal. He put others before himself. Though his page-turners introduced him to United States presidents, he remained Vinnie, the guy who asked about others’ families and signed books for the St. Thomas Academy cadets who sported the same uniform he’d worn in the 1980s. Known for his mantra “Keep the Faith,” he didn’t let his success change his core values, beliefs, or faith.

Over the years Flynn persuaded tight-lipped military and intelligence personnel to reveal vital insight and background for his novels. His uncanny ability to do so was a testament to how he both earned and demonstrated loyalty and trust.

His tenacity enabled him to channel the dyslexia that had plagued him as a student into an asset as a writer. He made time to speak with students who shared his challenge, encouraging them to find something they were good at so it would be easier to deal with that which did not come readily.

The evening prompted me to think about legacy, for Flynn clearly left one. Some people give conscious thought to it during their lifetimes. Others simply live life and let their legacies reveal themselves.

My work leads me to philanthropists and nonprofits whose mission is to help others deal with a host of challenges that stand between them and a more desirable future. While the challenges vary, the needs are much the same. Typically operating on lean budgets, organizations offer resources and guidance that can lead to a life filled with opportunity instead of obstacles. In the past month I’ve learned about three of them.

For 30 years Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge has provided faith-based treatment options to men, women and teenagers grappling with addiction issues. Teen boys who entered the residential treatment program lived in a Minneapolis neighborhood where drug dealers could be seen peddling their wares. The young men couldn’t leave the residence to walk around the block. So they passed their free time playing video games in cramped quarters.

Recently, the landscape changed dramatically for the teens. Relying principally on gifts and elbow grease, MNTC opened Lakeside Academy, a residential program for teen boys located on what was for decades a Girl Scout camp in Buffalo, Minn. Donor contributions paid for the property as well as the renovation of old and construction of new buildings. Volunteers cleared the land. Women sewed quilts for the beds. And much more.

The facility houses up to 60 teen boys who can pursue their education and face their addictions on a 40-acre wooded property that includes two lakes. They spend time outdoors, inhaling fresh air, working their muscles, and figuring out life.

Across the metro, previously incarcerated African American men participate in the Ujamaa Theory of Transformation program, established in 2010. The goal is to help the men re-establish trust in themselves and society and to eschew an “us versus them” mentality.

Many men who move into the Ujamaa House in St. Paul were homeless; disconnected from their children and families; and barely educated. Drawing upon a range of partners, the Ujamaa program addresses barriers to housing, education, and employment.

African American life coaches help men ages 18 to 30 to complete their high school education, mend relationships, and develop parenting and job skills. The end game is to establish confidence and opportunities and to prevent homelessness and recidivism. With clear expectations in place for them, approximately 100 men have completed the program and less than 1 percent have returned to prison.

The Jeremiah Program has similar objectives for single mothers. Established more than 20 years ago in Minneapolis by Father Michael O’Connell, the program addresses the cycle of poverty that can envelop single mothers.

In both Minneapolis and St. Paul, Jeremiah offers single mothers over 18 the opportunity to pursue a college education by providing necessary supports. Through two-generation programming that includes housing, childcare and mentoring, the organization has established an impressive track record of helping impoverished women become economically independent and self-reliant.

To be considered for the program, candidates must complete a rigorous 16-week empowerment course. Upon acceptance they participate in weekly life skills training that offers the pathway to a successful life, while attending college and being a parent. The model is so successful it’s being replicated in North Dakota, Texas, and Boston.

These three programs (and many more like them) came about because of people who stepped forward — people who will leave a legacy by helping young boys to battle their addictions, African American men and single mothers to have homes and jobs. One measure of the programs’ success could be if the participants not only achieve their goals but ultimately help ensure others have the same opportunities they were afforded. That would be another legacy worth celebrating.