The Summer That Changed Joey's Life
Blog by Charlie Davis
President and CEO
YMCA of Pierce and Kitsap Counties
A few months ago, I was reading The News Tribune when I came across an in-memoriam notice celebrating the life of a young man I knew when I worked at the Lakewood Family YMCA. Chad grew up at the Y; he seemed to be there every day after school and virtually all summer long. When he was old enough, he became part of the staff there. Chad had a gift for connecting with youth – especially those who struggled to fit in. Every time I saw Chad around the building, there were always two or three kids tagging along with the biggest smiles on their faces. Chad was the pied piper of the Lakewood Y. Sadly, he passed away eight years ago.
As you might imagine, it was a bit eerie when I received a phone call a couple of days later from someone looking for Chad. He told me his name was Joey, and I instantly remembered his story. Seven-year-old Joey and his aunt burst into the Y one morning in a panic. They were in the midst of a family crisis and she asked if she could leave Joey with us for a few hours. Joey was a member, but dropping him off like that was unusual, to say the least. Even so, letting him stay felt like the right thing to do.
So, I walked around the Y with Joey and attempted to strike up a conversation. He didn’t want to talk. He didn't smile. I noticed his t-shirt was dirty and his hair was messy. I thought that he might like participating in Summer Day Camp activities, so I asked the staff if he could join in. I was sure that he’d have fun with the other kids, but unfortunately, it wasn’t long before Joey got into a physical altercation. It was clear Joey was going through a difficult time and the last place he wanted to be was at the Y. I think we were both relieved when his aunt returned to pick him up.
Joey showed up the next day. His aunt pleaded with me to let him stay again. As I talked to her, I saw that Chad was in the lobby and had started talking with Joey. If anyone could connect with him and build a relationship, it was Chad. So, I agreed to let him stay one more day.
Sure enough, when I went to check in on them later, Chad and Joey were engaged in a hotly contested game of ping pong. Joey still wasn’t smiling, but he was focused on the game, which was a huge improvement for the sullen boy who wasn’t interested in anything the day before. At the end of the day, after Joey went home, I asked Chad how it went. He told me Joey did well but didn’t think he’d be back. Chad got the sense that things weren’t okay at home.
To my surprise, Joey came back the next morning. Chad was there to greet him at the front door and Joey’s face lit up when he saw him. It was a pretty cool sight. Chad had changed Joey’s whole disposition, lifting his spirits. Over the course of the next few weeks, I watched Joey transform. We got him a clean YMCA t-shirt to wear and he started combing his hair. I even saw him smile a few times. I remember thinking, at the time, how Chad played such a significant role in Joey’s transformation. He had taken an interest in Joey and it changed Joey’s life.
At one point that summer, Chad filled me in on some of what was going on in Joey’s home life. His dad wasn’t in the picture. He was very close to his older sister, but she was sick and their mom had to take her to a lot of doctor’s appointments. And because mom didn’t want Joey to hear bad news about his sister’s condition, Joey was often left alone at home. His aunt tried to help when she could, but she worked all day. Joey was a very scared young boy, afraid he might lose his best friend. He wanted to be with his sister. With Chad, though, he felt safe and, at least for the time he was at the Y, he was not so afraid.
Joey was sad to hear that Chad had passed away. There was a lot he wanted to tell him – how his family moved to Illinois and his sister gradually got better. How he later went to college and became an elementary school teacher. How he had dedicated his life to changing the lives of young people, much like Chad had helped him. That summer at the Y changed everything. He wished he could have shared that with Chad, but I assured him Chad would have been pleased to know how things turned out.
At the Y, caring adults like Chad meet kids where they are and help them overcome the obstacles in their life. Every summer, camp counselors interact with thousands of young people, showing them compassion and teaching them to lead values-centered lives, so they can grow up to be healthy, happy adults.
This is how we make our community stronger. This is how we make our world a better place – by helping kids like Joey find belonging, connection, and hope.