Fulfilling God's Purpose

In a previous blog I mentioned, “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.”  Safe Alternative Foundation for Education is what he was preparing me for.

God ordered my steps and had a plan for how it would play out. I needed have faith, be obedient, and trust the process. He prepared me to fulfill his purpose, provided me with the resources, and sent everyone needed to bring the vision to fruition.

God turned my tragedy into triumph.

Waking up from a dream, two days after walking on my own for the first time in 8 years, God instructed me to start a nonprofit. Here’s the thing, I didn’t know what a nonprofit was nor, did I know anyone with one. Despite that, fueled by passion and a vision of using my testimony to help others, I spent the next few months researching, cold calling people, and asking anyone who would listen “how to start a nonprofit”. For the first time since my football days, I had something that I was extremely passionate about. This calling on my life renewed my sense of purpose and confirmed why I suffered my injury.

Having graduated a couple months earlier and not having a job, my days became consumed with this mission. This ultimately became my fulltime job. Google also became my best friend. Eventually, I met a lot of people who provided me with great advice and guidance. Additionally, I found a nonprofit checklist online that helped me legally form the foundation. I would also later use this same checklist and the knowledge I gained to help other founders jumpstart their foundation.

Now having a plethora of information to start from, I began thinking about a name that would also tell the mission of the foundation. Wanting to stay involved in sports and intrigued by the statistics of how many athletes make it to the professionals, the career expectancy of a professional, and how many of them go broke after making a substantial amount of money; the initial name I had was Scholastic Athletes Foundation for Education. The vision was to use my testimony to share with athletes on the vitatlity of having an education and a backup plan for life after sports. I also envisioned focusing on the importance of financial literacy and investing.

Now, if you’ve been following my story you know that isn’t the name of my foundation so here’s when the change happened.

One day I shared my vision with a friend who asked me some very thought-provoking questions. The same type of questions I ask many people who often come to me for business consulting. At the end of the conversation he said, “Van your story can help a lot of people. It’s too powerful to only share it with one group. Don’t box yourself in.”

At that moment, I knew he was right. My story could have an impact on a lot of people and I shouldn’t segment my audience. He also suggested a broader name and thus Safe Alternative Foundation for Education (SAFE) was born. SAFE’s mission is to inform students about the importance of obtaining an education and having an alternate career plan in anticipation for life’s deviations.

Now that I had the name and mission, I had to start fundraising and building out a plan to implement the vision. I’m a firm believer that you can speak things into existence by putting them into the atmosphere (of course there are other factors like hard work). It’s like the saying from the movie “Field of Dreams” with Kevin Costner, “If you build it, they will come.”

That’s exactly what I was determined to do. I began to broadcast to the world my mission and vision for SAFE and in 2013 I had my first fundraiser. Previously whenever the anniversary of my injury came it served as a negative reminder of how my life changed and I wanted to change that. For the first time since my injury I called the head coach from Georgetown Prep. As you could imagine, he was in disbelief that he was talking to me.

After providing him with an update on my life and sharing my vision for my foundation and fundraiser, I asked him if he could gather some players from that team and bring them to Baltimore to be my special guest. I also asked him for the contact information of Kevin (not his real name), the player whom I broke my neck tackle.

After reaching out and extending an invitation to Kevin, I was excited when he agreed to attend as well as get on a call with me. This was a big moment for us because since my injury we have never spoken. He explained how devastated he was when the accident occurred and how the uncertainty of my wellbeing had taken a toll on him over the years. I explained that I was doing very well. Additionally, I explained how that event has shaped my life and lead to me founding SAFE.

The day of the event Kevin met with my parents and I for the second time since that tragic day. Getting teary eyed seeing me, Kevin apologized, as we embraced each other. There was so much we all wanted to say but what seemed most fitting to say was, it’s no need to apologize, it wasn’t your fault. It was in God’s plan. After all look what the results were. What started as a tragedy has led to 100+ people gathered to help me live out my calling to help others. (Kevin and I are still in touch to this day).

The success of the fundraiser allowed me to purchase enough equipment to start my very first program called Yards for Success (YFS). YFS is a free 6-week flag football program for 25 middle school students, from my West Baltimore neighborhood, that teaches the importance of an education as well as build healthy relationships between inner city youth, Baltimore City Police, and Baltimore City Fire personnel.

The following year, I had a vision of opening a youth center. At the time this vision seemed farfetched. I had only been doing this work for a year and I didn’t have any money or staff. However, one day I saw a for sale sign on the side of an abandoned building. This building was located a few blocks away from my home and over the past decade I had driven by it almost every day. I spoke with my mother, who’s a realtor, and my dad, who’s a carpenter, and I told them I wanted the building for my center. They agreed to help me but there was still one major problem...I didn’t have any money.

One day after that conversation with my parents, I attended a Loyola football game. At halftime I went on the field to speak to the opposing coach just before he ran into the locker room to address his team. In the short exchange, he told me he wanted to catch up later. He asked that I give him a call later that week to schedule a time to meet at his office.

A few weeks later we met for lunch and reminisced about stories when I played against his teams and the time, I went into a full body cramp and he had to put me in a cold whirlpool filled with ice. Both being men of faith we talked about God, which ultimately lead to me talking about SAFE and my vision for this center. Just before leaving he said he wanted to support my vision because he believed in me. He wrote a check and while handing it to me he instructed me to use it on myself. This was extremely kind of him because during that time I was unemployed and working on SAFE fulltime. We hugged, and I head back to my car.

I never looked at the check because it didn’t matter how much it was for. I was going to be extremely appreciative regardless. Besides, that wasn’t my intentions, I genuinely wanted to catch up and speak with him. Once I got in the car, I glanced at the check. Surprised at what I thought I saw, I had to take a second look. This time eyes wide. I was blown away. He had written a check big enough for me to purchase the building.

Was this a sign from God?

A building in my community became available, and now I received a check that could cover the negotiated price. Adding to this, I also found out that the building was last used as a church.

Yup, this was definitely a sign from God.

After closing and taking ownership of the building, the pressure was on to get it up and running. Still having some money left from the check, I used that to start the refurbishing process. It wasn’t enough to take the project to the finish line, so I convinced my dad to do that work. He said he would only if I purchased all the materials, and if for some reason it didn’t work out as planned, I would move out of his house and into the building. With no other option, I agreed!

My dad took almost an entire year off from work to dedicate his time and resources to my dream. When I ran out of money and could no longer purchase materials, he threatened me constantly that he was going to stop but he never did. He even began personally funding the project. Wanting to do more to help my dad, I began looking for volunteers to support him in his efforts. Throughout the course of the project, approximately 50 volunteers came and helped demolish, and restore the building.

In 2015, thanks to my dad and the dedicated volunteers, we opened the SAFE Center. When the day came, I was filled with emotions. On that day, my life came full circle. 11 years ago, I was laying in a hospital bed fighting for my life and now I defied all the odds and overcame every obstacle I faced.

That was also my way of paying it forward and saying thank you to everyone who supported me and my family during my darkest times. As a result of their selflessness, not only did they change my life, they changed the lives of so many other students. Their support of me 11 years ago has had a ripple effect and is now providing resources, opportunities, and hope to students, like me, living in an underserved and often forgotten community.

To be continued…

Learn more about SAFE and how you can support at www.safealternative.org

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