Showing them the other side of the tracks

Published: Saturday, Nov. 30 2013 10:23 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.

* * *

One of Gary’s first test cases was a boy we’ll call Edgar. Seventeen years old. Just out of juvy after two years inside. Born in Compton, Calif. Dad a gang banger who was never home. Mom, struggling to make ends meet, had Edgar selling Costco chips on the corner when he was 5. When he was 7, she loaded him and his younger sister and older brother in a van and fled California for Utah, where they lived in a camper shell, unheated, in West Valley City. Edgar grew up believing prison was where you went to get a warm night’s sleep — and credibility. Part of the conditions of his release from the Wasatch Youth Center was that he would pay $18,000 in restitution for his crimes — or he would sure enough get that prison cred.

For two hours every Sunday and one hour on Wednesday nights, Gary sketched out another life for Edgar, one completely foreign to his frame of reference, one that included a steady job, balancing a checkbook, getting a good night’s sleep, going to school, actually doing what the court asked and paying back that $18K. For Edgar, it was like someone describing the other side of the moon.

Once he was released, Gary found Edgar a job at his firm, in the warehouse. He picked him up early in the morning and made sure he got to work. He taught him about being punctual, about doing a good job, about handling money, about paying back.

Not long into this new arrangement, Edgar learned of a woman in his West Valley neighborhood who had a newspaper route that brought in enough money for her to pay her rent and take care of her kids. Then the woman got sick and couldn’t deliver her papers. He asked Gary: Could he deliver her papers for free so she would still get paid? Not only would it be possible, said Gary, but Edgar would earn service hours that would go toward that restitution he owed.

“As much of a high as you get from a gang,” Gary told him, “you can get that and more from service.”

Edgar paid off the $18K within a year.

It wasn’t all smooth. Edgar slipped up here and there. Each time, Gary waited him out. Edgar never went to prison. Now, more than five years later and a full-fledged adult, Edgar has this to say:

“It’s the best thing that’s ever happened in my life. I’m not in prison, I’m not dead, I got a job, I got a better job. He (Gary) believed in me when I didn’t even believe in myself. I was just a gang-banging kid, that’s all I was. It’s a blessing I met that dude.”

Wait. Edgar is just warming up.

“What have I learned? I’ve learned if I work hard I can have what I want in life. I never worked hard, I was, like I said, a gang-banging kid. Life was all about violence, drugs, that’s all I cared about. I got introduced to a way, way different life. I want to be successful. I want to have a family. I want to be able to say I worked for 40-50 years to get what I got and it felt good to get there. I’m working two jobs, I’m a father to my kid, I go to college, at SLCC, in composite technology. I want a career job at Boeing. I’m going to be something in that company.”

* * *

Gary realized he couldn’t hire every at-risk kid to work at his firm.

And he could hardly see how he could ask other employers to take such an obvious risk on someone just out of jail.

Which is what brought about his brainstorm to start his nonprofit foundation called Forever Changed.

Gary funded it with his own money and approaches employers with an offer few can refuse: Forever Changed will pay the wages, plus Social Security and medical, for the at-risk kids.

Hey, could you use a free employee?

The wages are guaranteed for three to six months and maybe longer. If the young men turn into valuable employees the companies want to keep, that’s great too.

Gary doesn’t tell the kids he’s paying their salary, and neither do their employers. And he insists that the employers put each prospective hire through an interview process just like anyone else and turn them away if they’re not impressed, just like they would with anyone else.

Gary said, “I’ll have kids call and say: ‘I got the job! I did what you said, looked them in the eye, told them I’d be on time, and I got it!'

“And I tell them, ‘I told you dude.’ ”

In addition to the salaries, the foundation helps with rent for apartments, clothing, food and other essentials to get someone started in an existence outside a life of crime.

Asked the obvious, Gary says, “Oh yeah, it takes a ton of time, but I enjoy doing it.”

* * *

What has one man wrought?

To date, more than 60 at-risk youths have been mentored by Forever Changed, the majority of them by Gary, and a handful more by Dennis Gay, the man who was Gary’s LDS branch president when he was a volunteer at the Wasatch Youth Center.

Recently released from that position, Dennis, like Gary, can’t let the work go. “This isn’t about LDS people trying to convert people,” he says. “This is about helping these kids get to a better place. Most of them, once they get a taste of it, they don’t want to go back to the old life. Some get in a pinch and relapse. But even though they may go back, they’ve had a good experience and they’re more apt to go straight after a relapse. That’s what Gary taught us. Hang in there. It’s really about patience.

“Gary was such a great mentor for all of us. He and Nancy had all these foster kids in their life. They knew how to work with them, what to do. The rest of us didn’t. It’s kind of like trying to tell someone how to eat peanut butter. You can’t explain what it tastes like to someone who hasn’t ever tasted it. Gary taught us that these kids, they just don’t know. We’re starting with them from the ground up. Everybody doesn’t see things through our eyes. They haven’t been where we’ve been. They don’t have the same experiences we do. It’s perspective.”

In addition to the work being done by Forever Changed, the LDS branch at the Wasatch Youth Center has formulated its own mentoring program designed to help kids post-incarceration. Not only do branch volunteers participate actively as mentors on the outside, but individuals with specific life skills beyond the branch are brought in for special expertise and influence. Each month, a meeting is held with branch leaders, youth center officials and state representatives as well as representatives from other religions to identify youths who need mentoring help and those best suited to help them.

Bill Aho, the current LDS branch president — and the person who alerted the Deseret News about this story — is unhesitant in giving credit for the mentoring revolution where it’s due.

“A lot of people talk the talk with their religion,” says Aho. “Gary Kehl walks the walk. It’s one thing to deliver a good sermon, but Gary does the Lord’s work.”

Email: benson@deseretnews.com

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