Tom Flood took me directly to a back room where the Work Connection "mentors" were in the midst of their weekly meeting. A group of adults were sitting around a conference table discussing troubled youth in concerned tones, swapping ideas for dealing with thorny issues that had arisen, providing mutual support in the face of their daunting assignments. This was not a human services agency, however, and the individuals seated around the table were not a bunch of newly minted MSWs. This was a union hall, and around the table sat a dozen retired Teamsters, cops, electrical workers, and firemen.
One of them was Nick Spaneas. A sturdy, intense man in his late fifties, Nick was dressed in the official outfit of retirement--neatly pressed slacks, blue polo shirt, a light tan jacket. From his attire, it was not hard to imagine Nick leaning on his putter, on the 14th green. But Nick had no time for golf. He was hardly a member of the leisure class. "I don't have an education," he explained, "but I have an education in life...in real life, and that's what I teach them." The young men attending Nick's one-on-one university of the real world had all, like their instructor, dropped out of school. Most had lost interest in education years before. One was living on the streets, in a refrigerator box. Nick's job was to get them a job. But he recognized that before he could tackle the issue of employment, he would have to overcome considerable wariness forged over years of stormy relationships with parents, teachers, police, probation officers, and other authority figures. "The first thing I tell them," Nick continued, is "I'm not a government agent. I'm here for you. Only you. I'm here because I want to do this."
Tom Flood told me years later that Nick "was the one white guy" he'd ever met "who could talk to black kids and convince them that America is a land of opportunity." It wasn't a ploy. Nick believed there was hope, and the young people believed Nick, in part, because his own story was so powerful. Orphaned in Greece during World War II, his entire family of twenty-four was slaughtered. He watched his mother and sister die within two weeks. ("I was never a little boy," he recalls, "I was a man when I was seven years old.") Lucky and resilient, he survived, emigrating to the U.S. where he started out working in a leather factory. Later he was a barber, then a bus driver. For over a quarter century, he played the bouzouki in a Greek band. But there were hardships as well, the most painful setback a divorce that left him cut off from his only child, a daughter.
But Nick and the other retirees did more than focus on connecting with the young people. They displayed a radar-like appreciation of how these kids were going to get derailed. They knew, for example, that the young men would oversleep their first week of work. So they turned themselves into human alarm clocks. Recalling Woody Allen's line that 90 percent of success in life is showing up, Nick and the others were stationed outside the kids' houses on day one of work, banging on the door at 7:00 a.m. to make sure they got to work on time. For weeks they would repeat this practice on Monday mornings.
Nick and the others were not doing this work out of pure altruism. They continued to show up, week in and week out, because they were getting so much out of helping the kids. "It's like being a father, or a brother; I really get attached to them," Nick explained.
For Nick and the other retired men, the Work Connection offered a second chance, every bit as much as for the kids—the chance to redeem themselves from past failings, to be the father they hadn't been before, to reaffirm the value of their own life's experience. It was an opportunity for redemption, for finding new purpose, for leaving the land a little better than they found it. They were doing something that mattered—to themselves and to the community. As a result, the success of The Work Connection wasn't dependent on the shaky soil of idealism; it was anchored to the much sturdier ground of enlightened self-interest.
Pub date: 02/28/02
Price: $14.00/20.95 Canada
12 pp. b/w photos
Aging, History, Inspiration