There are forces that are bigger than life, that can move mountains, and inspire the uninspired. If you’re lucky enough to meet someone like this pay close attention. They can offer you great perspective and invaluable insight. In Champaign-Urbana there are many people like this to know. The focus of this column is to introduce readers to these gems of the community. You can learn more about who they are, what they do, and what motivates them.
Being pulled in more than one direction is something he’s used to. Hearing his name called by students and staff, he responds as he can while he searches for an empty room. His office is unavailable as the IT Department fiddles with his computer. He answers their questions, finds a quiet place to talk, and provides his undivided attention to the next person now asking him questions. All in a day’s work for Sheldon Turner.
Turner was born and raised in East St. Louis. The second youngest in a family of seven children, Turner grew up relying on the strength of family. The test of family strength came early on for Turner. His father died when he was 13. Rather than allowing the pain of the experience to take him down a negative path, Turner got involved in sports. Through the different sports he played during his teenage years, he was able to express the anger he had over losing his father. Focusing on activities would keep him from falling prey to the world around him. In an area that was heavy with gang activity, Turner saw how gang affiliation affected his friends. The strength with family was always at the forefront of his thoughts. Turner states that his family was well known, and a choice to run with gangs wouldn’t have gone unnoticed or unreported to them.
Family involvement of that level might be a turnoff for other teenagers, but Turner had foresight and could appreciate his family being tough on him about the choices he made. It was a choice by his mother that brought him to Champaign. She encouraged him to move to central Illinois where one of his brothers lived. Turner’s mom believed he could have a better life in Champaign if he was away from the issues of East St. Louis. Turner attended Parkland to begin his journey with education. Wanting to live up to his potential, he continues to add to his education even today. He also advocates for education with others, specifically teens. Turner works at the Academic Academy where he is the Career Services Placement Liason. Building on the foundation of education the teenagers receive, he bridges the gaps to gainful employment for teens at the Academy.
Turner knows firsthand how a child’s upbringing can steer him down a certain path. The students he works with haven’t always had it easy. Speaking from personal experience, he understands just how important it is for adolescents to have supportive adults in their lives. Being a strong role model, he is an example of how to survive in a tough environment and push yourself to be successful. He’s passionate about helping adolescents break free from the destinies others may feel they have. He works to educate adolescents about the real world application of their dreams. Money doesn’t always mean happiness. Turner often visits home and sees how happiness eludes some of those back in his hometown. The negative events that can happen in life can make or break a person. Turner talks about losing a close friend who took his own life. It caused him to reflect on what happiness means to him and what place he wants to have in the world. He took life by the reins and created his own destiny.
One of the programs Turner is invested in is Operation Hope. It is a local non-profit program that works on enforcing the four E’s: Education, Engagement, Experience, and Exposure. Turner acknowledges that work is not always a walk in the park. It requires serious dedication and success is sometimes hard to find. In Turner’s eyes it’s not just about big successes, but also the smaller successes. A teen may need help with behavior issues and doing better in school. Even if only one of those goals is met that’s a success that should be celebrated. Success can also come from positive collaboration with community partners. Turner states that the number of employers participating in the Youth Employment Program has grown. United Way has also provided funding. Turner hopes the Operation Hope program can spread to reach all of Central Illinois, even the nation someday. The need for helping teens is evident. It takes a small investment to make a huge difference to a teen who may feel that he doesn’t have the skills necessary to go to college, or that he doesn’t have the support from family to live up to his potential.
The Summer Youth Employment program is one of the successes that Turner celebrates. The program allows teens to earn marketable job skills. Of the 140 teens who participated in last summer’s program about 10 were able to retain their job they worked over that summer. Even for the other teens, the experience can provide a foot in the door, which can be pivotal in today’s job market. The personal effects on the teens who participate are almost immeasurable. They build confidence in themselves which transfers to motivation with earning a good GPA at school. And parents of the participants love the program. For the parents it can motivate them to begin planning for college for their teen. The Employment program accommodates this by providing workshops regarding college prep and financial aid.
While Turner is 100% invested in the work he does, it isn’t the only thing that he spends his time on. He referees high school basketball games. He travels when his schedule allows. And he has another passion: a love of dogs. He loves caring for and breeding dogs. This last hobby earned him the nickname Sheldawg. Having outlets for stress keeps Turner focused and energized. He also states that he has always been involved in church and that his faith provides his main source of inspiration.
When asked where he sees himself in five years he smiles and laughs, “An NBA official who is also the director of a national career advancement program.” Looking at everything Turner has accomplished for the community, it’s not hard to believe him when he talks about being able to achieve his dreams. Setting his own sights toward being the best he can be, it’s easy to see how he could inspire adolescents to do the same. Turner has strong convictions with his faith, the passion he has for his work, and the dedication he has to adolescents. That type of conviction can be hard to sustain, but Turner seems to do it with ease.
Returning to an earlier thought, Turner talks about how community members can make a difference in the life of an adolescent by being a consistent source of support. He encourages individuals to become mentors and points out that the positive impact of being a mentor can affect both mentor and mentee. There are mentoring opportunities within Unit 4 as well as with other community programs and agencies. Information can be found on the Unit 4 website.
Hearing his name again Turner switches gears. He’s met in the hall by a few students who need his help. Looking at the adolescents as they talk to Turner, the smiles on their faces say it all. Turner is an important person in their lives, and a solid piece of their foundation.