After graduating from middle school, without saying I already knew I would remain there for high school. Surprisingly, I was actually excited to stay. Since changing my mindset on the school I started really liking it. I was finally able to embrace the experience, make friends, and feel accepted as a member of the school’s community.
Now in high school, I also started understanding the real potential I had as an athlete. This caused me to really neglect my education, which showed in my grades. My dad sat me down one day and said, “Van I’m not sending you to that school for you to play sports. I’m sending you there to get an education.” He also asked me, “What are you going to do if you don’t make it playing sports?” In response, I flexed on him, both arms bent up, fist clinched, and showing my biceps, and said, “Nothing is going to happen. I’m going to make it.” He ended the conversation with, “never put all of your eggs in one basket.”
As I continued to matriculate through high school, entering into my junior year, I was in top shape and excelled even more with my athletics, especially football. My goals were to go to a D1 college on a full athletic scholarship then eventually make it to the NFL. Unfortunately, as of September 25, 2004 those goals were no longer attainable, after I suffered my injury. The very thing I dedicated my life to was the very thing that would change it forever. Just not in the way I expected and was prepared for.
Now back to finding my purpose in this tragedy. One day, shortly after recording my video of me walking, I woke up from a dream in which I was told to start a nonprofit. Here’s the weird thing, I had no prior knowledge of a nonprofit. I didn’t even know anyone who had one. Thank goodness for my best friend Google. Since I just graduated from college and no job I had a lot of free time. I spent the next 6 months researching nonstop. Eventually I found a checklist of how to legally start a nonprofit. I also met people in the industry who gave me invaluable advice.
In 2012 I founded Safe Alternative Foundation for Education (SAFE), with the mission to inform youth about the importance of obtaining an education as well as having an alternate career plan in anticipation for life’s deviations. As an extension of that work, in 2015 I founded the SAFE Center, youth facility to provide students from my community with afterschool, weekend, and summer learning opportunities. I’ll talk more about my work with SAFE in a later blog.
That’s it! I had an epiphany which revealed my purpose. It was as if I was watching a HD movie in a theatre. It was very vivid and in my face. God was preparing me for a life of service. He was preparing me for a journey much larger than myself. As dramatic as it was, God needed to sit me in a wheelchair to get my attention and sharpen my tools that I would need to fulfill the purpose he has on my life.
Why Baltimore City:
Growing up in a rough Baltimore City neighborhood that enabled me to understand what my students who attend the SAFE Center experience every day. It allows me to connect with them through a shared experience. It lets me to have empathy towards them and not judge them. It also permits me to be a positive black male role model to show them that if I can be successful coming from the same streets as them so can they.
Why Father Charles:
My experiences at Father Charles allowed me to experience what true servant leadership looks and feels like. This allows me to replicate it with my students and others I work with. Kathleen Filippelli came into my life and insisted that my parents make the huge sacrifice and investment of sending me to Loyola Blakefield. She has also been one of my biggest supporters since she became my principal over 20 years ago.
Why Loyola Blakefield:
Loyola Blakefield provided me with an exceptional education that I eventually had to rely on. It placed me within a network, and support system that would be there for my family during the lowest points in our lives. I’ve also met my friends for life there. It delivered experiences that I possible wouldn’t have received otherwise, as well as taught me how to adapt to any environment. More importantly, it taught me what it truly means to be “A Man for Others”, which goes hand in hand with servant leadership.
Being an athlete taught me the importance of teamwork, preparation, and accountability. It also taught me how to be extremely strategic and the importance of having discipline. Having broken so many bones it taught me how to cope mentally when facing physical pain. Lastly, it taught me what it truly means to be dedicated to something and imposing your will onto an obstacle standing in your way.
Come on God, you couldn’t get my attention in a different way? Did you really have to use a wheelchair to make your point? However, despite everything I’ve gone through I would not change it. Being in a wheelchair has taught me the most important lessons. Having my independence completely taken from me taught me patience and the importance of slowing down. Not having the ability to speak taught me to listen first and speak last. Going from standing to sitting literally changed my perspective and taught me how to see things from all angles. I’ve learned that all things are possible if you put the work in. More importantly, it showed me that I need a relationship with God.
To my surprise, the answer to this elusive question is simply, Why not me? I know the saying is you should never answer a question with a question but let me explain. I’m no exception and I’m no different than the next person. I have no right to feel that I’m better than anyone else because God has created us in his image to fulfill a very specific purpose within His plan.
From all of these experiences I’ve learned that in life things will happen to you that you'll least expect. The good thing about that is you have the final say. You decide what those things mean to you. You also control how you respond to those things. The next time you find yourself asking, why me? Dig deep and ask yourself, why not me?