Finding Purpose in Tragedy

Top left: Ms. Filippelli & Van

I had totally forgotten what it felt like to walk, so walking again after 8 years was still surreal to me. I watched the video over and over again in disbelief. Repeatedly I asked myself, “Did I really do this? Is this really me?”

It was real and going through this ordeal revealed the purpose for my life. I finally had the answer to the elusive question “Why me?”

But wait…Before I explain my purpose and how I figured it out, I must take you even further back and share how my story began.

I was born and raised in West Baltimore City. I’m the youngest of five and I’m the only boy. I had a very good upbringing and despite the negativity in my immediate environment my parents did an excellent job preparing me to navigate my community. My dad was always hard on me. He reminded me of a drill sergeant in the military movies I watched. I know that his intentions were to bring the best out of me and he knew I would respond best by being challenged. To him, that was the only way to prepare me for the harsh reality of the world.

For elementary school I attended Father Charles Hall Catholic School, which was located in Sandtown Winchester. That is where my educational and spiritual foundation was built. When I first began there, the school was operated by religious sisters who taught me what I now know as “servant leadership”. While there, my old principal left and was replaced by Kathleen Filippelli, who would be very instrumental in my adult life. Some of us have a teacher or principal from school that had an everlasting impact you, Ms. Filippelli is that person to me.

Growing up I always followed behind my older male cousins. Our relationship was similar to a little boy following behind his big brother. When my cousins decided to play football so did I. Man I was so excited to play. Trying my equipment on for the first time was like a sports car enthusiast test driving their favorite muscle car. I still remember the first day of practice as a Poppleton Bear. It was a nice day outside, the spikes on my cleats were clicking on the concrete as I walked the two blocks it took for me to get to the field from my house.

I was nervous my first time participating in tackling drills but I couldn’t show it. I knew that if I did I would be victimized, most likely from my cousin who was also on the team. One of the first drills I participated in was called Oklahoma. In my opinion, the Oklahoma drill was designed to see who could make it on the field and who couldn’t. The drill was simple. You and a teammate lay on your back about 10 yards apart. Either you or the other person has the football. When the coach blows his whistle, you both jump up as fast as you can. The objective is to literally try and run through the other person. Often times the collision sounded and reminded me of a car wreck. Despite the brutality of the drill, I LOVED IT. If this was how football was going to be I knew I found the sport for me.

That year we didn’t win any games but it was fun learning the sport. With one year under my belt, the following season I joined a different team called the Mount Royal Eagles. Man I loved that team. We were a bunch of physical kids who would play against anyone you put on the field with us. This team brought the best out of me. I moved from being the center, with the Bears, to the starting running back and outside linebacker. I went from being on a no win team to being on one of the best in the city.

Here’s a funny story that my mom and I still laugh about until this day.

Before my mother got use to the physicality of the game she always thought that tackling hurt. One day during a big game I got tackled and ended up at the bottom of the pileup. A pileup is when a tackle has been made and multiple players are stacked on top of each other. Anyway, I could hear my mom yelling “get off my son, get of my son”. Hearing my mom’s voice wasn’t out of the ordinary. What wasn’t normal was how close her voice was. As body after body was peeled off of me I looked up and saw my mother ON THE FIELD. She was pulling players off of me. Talk about embarrassed. My teammates teased me for years about this. I would continue to play with the Eagles until I graduated from elementary school and started attending Loyola Blakefield for middle school.

My middle school years were very difficult. I did not want to go to Loyola but my parents made me. When my parents told me I would be attending a predominately white, all boy school located approximately 35 minutes away from my house I was highly upset. My dad had to wake me up and drop me off extremely early so that he could make it back to the city before 8:00am for work. There were plenty of days when I would arrive on campus before the sun came up, as well as before the maintenance men arrived.

Attending Loyola was a complete culture shock. Aside from the handful of black students, there wasn’t anyone I could relate to. I live in a totally different environment than majority of the other students, which made it difficult to make friends. For many of my classmates I was the first black guy they have ever met. At times it was very burdensome to always have to be the voice for the black community as a middle school student. A lot of my classmates couldn’t wrap their heads around what it was like living in a crime ridden community with a lack of resources and opportunities. Some didn’t understand poverty, rowhomes, and government assistance. They didn’t understand that not everyone lived like them. They didn’t even understand that it wasn’t alright to just touch someone’s hair.

Being told that I didn’t belong there by a select few of students or being considered the “token black boy” or the “athlete” also added to my desire to leave. What those few students didn’t understand was academics were easy to me and I graduated from Father Charles as the salutatorian. Yes, I did excel as a three sport athlete, however I was accepted into Loyola for my academics. At that time football, basketball, and lacrosse served as an outlet for my frustrations from everything that I was enduring.

For almost 3 years I literally fought, argued, and plead my case to my parents as to why I didn’t belong at Loyola and didn’t want to be there. Despite my efforts, my parents didn’t waiver in their decision. When I finally accepted that I would be there for the long haul, I decided to make the best out of it. My parents were sacrificing more than what I understood at the time to send me there to get a good education.

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.

Why Athletics:

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.

Why Paralysis:

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.

Why me?

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?

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