Showing them the other side of the tracks

Published: Saturday, Nov. 30 2013 10:20 p.m. MST

Gary Kehl has volunteered at the Wasatch Youth Center helping at-risk youths incarcerated there and now with his Forever Changed Foundation helps them with follow-up after they are released. Photograph taken Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013, in Salt Lake City.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — By all rights, Gary Kehl should be kicked back by now enjoying the view. He’s 68 years old; he’s a managing partner of a successful Utah-based medical products company that does business around the world; he and his wife, Nancy, have raised their nine children, six of them adopted, plus another 23 foster kids they took in over the years. You may have heard of two of their sons who have played in the National Football League — Ed, from 1999 through 2002, and Bryan, currently a linebacker for the Washington Redskins — and a daughter, Nicole, who just completed a world tour as a backup singer for Rihanna.

But Gary Kehl is not kicked back. Gary Kehl does not know how to rest on anything, least of all his laurels. Instead, these days he finds himself knee-deep in the nonprofit he formed a little more than three years ago called Forever Changed, a mentoring program for extreme at-risk juveniles recently released from detention.

Kids, as Gary puts it, “who have never seen the other side of the tracks.”

On any given day, Gary leaves his home in a gated community in a posh part of the Salt Lake Valley and wades head-first into the not-so-posh parts, finding jobs, rides, apartments, life skills and fresh starts for young men fighting the relentless gravity-like pull of the gang banging life that got them behind bars in the first place.

Does he save them all?

No. But he saves some of them.

* * *

The quest began innocently enough six years ago when Gary and Nancy were called by the president of their LDS stake to serve as volunteers in a branch of the church operating at the Wasatch Youth Center on Salt Lake City’s west side. Their assignment was to participate in meetings held Sundays and Wednesday nights open to any and all teenagers housed at the lockdown facility who would like to attend.

Gary remembers being skeptical in the beginning.

“My first thought was these were bad kids and they ought to take ’em out and hang ’em.”

Then he met them. “My second thought,” he says, “was, man, these kids haven’t got a chance.”

What he saw wasn’t bad kids, what he saw was kids who didn’t know any life other than violence, drugs and gang banging. Expecting them to serve their time, get released and change their ways was entirely unrealistic because they knew no other way.

The more he got to know them, the more he became convinced that they needed serious mentoring once they were set free. They needed to be shown another way.

But there was a problem: because of liability concerns, the branch’s volunteers were asked not to give out their addresses or phone numbers or any personal information to the inmates.

“They told us to love them and give them hope,” says Gary. “I said I can love them all you want, but I can’t give them hope if I can’t work with them on the outside.”

So he lobbied. And then he lobbied some more. He talked to the Youth Center’s directors, he talked to state officials and church leaders. Please, he begged. Please let me be a mentor to these kids when they’re released. Let me drive them to work, teach them how to handle money, how to hold down a job — walk them through the game of life.

They could see he was serious about this. And they said OK.

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