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THE CLUB SAVED HIM

McCool dedicates life to helping youth

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THE CLUB SAVED HIM

Boys and Girls Club of Manteca Program Director Mark McCool gets a hand from Veronica Espinoza to ready a framed poster signed by John Travolta for the upcoming telethon.

JASON CAMPBELL/The Bulletin


POSTED November 15, 2012 1:14 a.m.

The transforming moment in Mark McCool’s life involving moving to the other side of the tracks.

Literally.

As a youngster in Lodi, McCool – who says he was running with the wrong crowd – spotted a group of kids walking across the railroad tracks near his home. They were the tracks that he wasn’t supposed to cross per his mother, but their destination intrigued him. And he followed suit.

They were headed to the Boys and Girls Club of Lodi.

McCool got in trouble for making the journey that day, but over time that warehouse building became his favorite destination. He befriended then-director Chuck Crutchfield – who gave him his first job there at 15 – and learned early on about the benefits that mentorship can provide.

And he’s been involved with non-profit work in one capacity or another ever since.

Now the Program Director of the Boys and Girls Club of Manteca – where he came in 1995 when Crutchfield came calling for a future site director of a satellite location in Lathrop – McCool oversees the programming aspects of an organization that he wholeheartedly believes in.

After all, he was a “lifer” – spending as much time as a child as he possibly could buzzing around the Lodi site that laid the foundation for what would become his life’s work.

The Bulletin caught up with him on the day before the club closes for its annual telethon for a Q&A session:

You’ve worked for the Boys and Girls Club, the Convention and Visitors Bureau and Give Every Child a Chance. What is it about non-profit work that you enjoy so much?

“I think it comes from a place – I like to help people that can’t help themselves. People that are having a hard time. I’d like to think it’s because that’s how my mama raised me. This life has never been about money for me. I definitely get certain rewards – non-monetary rewards. And you can’t put a price tag on a lot of those. How do you put a price on seeing a smile on the face of a kid? You can’t. When I tell people that I work for a non-profit they sometimes ask me if I’m a volunteer – a lot of times they don’t understand how it works. But I love doing this, and I love working with kids – I think that I’ve always had a natural talent from early on to do that.”



How big of an impact did being a member of the Boys and Girls Club have on your life?


“I wasn’t living on the right side of the tracks per se. My peers were not a positive influence, and I was bullied a lot. But when I found the club all of that changed. The atmosphere was more positive and people were accepting me for who I was – and I was a pretty shy kid. At the club I wasn’t bullied or ridiculed, and I didn’t get in trouble for being me, and that made me keep going back. There were adults there that listened, and I honestly believe that experience saved my life. I would have ended up in a gang or in juvenile hall if it wasn’t for walking across those railroad tracks that day.”



The Beatles or The Rolling Stones?


“The Rolling Stones. I’m a rocker. I love Rock and Roll.”



A lot of people might not know that you’re a singer-songwriter. Where did that passion for music come from?


“I was a shy kid all through high school, and even though I played football and basketball, I secluded myself a lot of time to my room and basically my social upbringing was music. It was me and myself learning music. I remember if an album didn’t have lyrics on the jacket I wasn’t happy. I would have to play it, write it down, pick up the needle, move it back and play it again. It was a pain. But it was worth it to me to learn the songs and sing them. I don’t know why I did that. Music just makes me happy. I’m not a good public speaker – I don’t like getting up there and talking in front of even a few people. But I could sing in front of a million people. A lot of times it’s the other way around for people.”



You were diagnosed with colon cancer in 2006 and the prognosis at one point was extremely dire. How did that experience – and beating something that nearly killed you – change your perspective?

“It definitely rearranges your priorities. It validated, for me, the non-profit work that I’m doing with kids and made me reconnect with my own kids and reach out to my family – to have a relationship with the people that maybe you didn’t have one with before. Really, in this life, you have to take advantage of every day because sometimes the next day doesn’t come.”



What is something about Mark that most people don’t know?

“I’m 3-0 as an amateur boxer. At the time the Lodi club had boxing and Chuck (Crutchfield) had challenged the Stockton Boxing Club to a competition, and I ended up fighting the 145-pound Golden Gloves Champion from Stockton. And I won. They told me when I got into the ring that the bouts were all tied that I had to win for us to win. Yaqui Lopez – who was a really big boxer at the time – was the referee and afterwards offered to train me. But I passed.”



A burger or a chicken sandwich?

“Chicken. I’m trying to be a little bit healthier. I guess it depends on how they cook it. You know what – I just like chicken better anyway. I like the taste.”



What’s the biggest challenge you face on a daily basis?


“Losing ‘em. Not being able to save every one of ‘em. It happens. You do everything that you can and sometimes it just doesn’t pan out. The good kids are going to come, and they’re going to get good grades and they’re going to smile and be happy. But you’re looking for the ones that don’t want to be here and don’t want the help that you’re trying to give them. All you can do is stick with it and hope that they’ll grow up and have a happy life. Sometimes you’re working with these kids for three or four years before they go back to the gang, or you’ll hear that they got shot, or got sent to juvenile hall or you’ll see them walking and you can tell they just went to the wrong side. That’s the tough part. You want to be able to save them all. But if you let that get to you then it’ll be too much and you’ll burn out so fast. You just try to save the next one. Losing them is the tough part, but they’re really the reason that this building is here.”



How important is the community support to providing the programs necessary for the club to operate?

“It’s everything. We’ve got the telethon coming up and we’ll have people that will come and set-up and work the phones and stay and clean-up. But we have people here that support us year-round. They show up when we need help the most. Whether its football coaches, tutors or mentors, they don’t just show up once a year, and without volunteers and community support we don’t have the programs that we have. We have 500 volunteers go through our programs to support everything throughout the year. It’s a labor of love for people, and we’re grateful for their support.”



Any hobbies outside of work?

“I like writing music. I’m a ghost hunter – that’s something that a lot of people don’t know about me. I’m affiliated with San Joaquin Valley Paranormal Research. I enjoy the curiosity of the unknown – I like to call myself a healthy skeptic. I didn’t believe at all when I first started doing this, but now I have to ask myself where a lot of these things come from.”



Where would you like to see the club in five years?

“Financially stable and running with full staff – programs humming along on all cylinders. I’d like to see a bigger presence in Lathrop, or at least the Lincoln Elementary site up and running again so that we have a presence on that side of town. With this economy that might be asking a lot, and if we could do more, that would be great too.”



Coffee or energy drinks?

“Coffee in the morning and energy drinks in the afternoon.”



How has the economy changed the way things operate?

“It’s affected us drastically. We have two program areas that are underfunded and underserved, and we’ve got other areas that we’re not able to move forward with like Lincoln. We’re handcuffed in a lot of ways. This whole business is based off of money, and your biggest expense is personnel, but that’s the hard part and the tough question – your staff is the ones that work directly with the kids and make up the core program and get the kids to keep coming back. It’s all about adults taking the time to connect with kids, and it’s something magical – magic that I wish I could bottle. I wish sometimes that people could be me – could be in my head and in my heart because if they were they wouldn’t leave without writing a $25 or $100 check. You have to see the impact to really understand what goes on here.”



Favorite television show?

“Sons of Anarchy. I’ve been watching that since the beginning.”



How important are the individual programs that you offer the youth?

“You could have a building, literally open the doors, not run a program, let the kids play whatever they wanted – pool, foosball, whatever – and that would be a great service. They’d be off the street and in a safe place. But here’s where the magic happens. Take an adult that cares that’s willing to interact – play pool or football or teach them art or music or cooking – and put it all in a structured environment. That’s where the magic happens. That bonding – where the relationship starts. Hopefully 20 years later you’re being invited to their wedding because you taught them how to shoot a basketball when they were young. Sometimes its things you might not even remember, but they do. And that’s what matters.”

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