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Show Me the Way and I'll Follow

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Michael Donnelly, YouthBuild McLean County (IL) graduate, YouthBuild USA National Alumni Council member, Community Impact Manager, United Way of McLean County

As I sit in my office, I look around and see the motivational pictures that I have up and the books that I read periodically that remind me of a journey not yet completed. I see my community and national leadership awards that remind me that my life is not the same as it used to be, and then I see the most valued possessions in my office; three pictures that sit right next to me that remind me that I have a beautiful wife and three boys who are watching my every step.

In 1999 I can't say that this image would have looked the same. In fact if I had to start this story then, it would have sounded like this: I look at my life and I see hurt and pain on the faces of those I love the most, I see a sea of orange and green jumpsuits with writing on the back that reads "McLean County Inmate." What I didn't see was hope. My wife and I had separated, my family was unsure of who I was and when I looked in the mirror, even I wasn't sure of who I was or where I was going.

At a moment in my life when nothing was going right, I found YouthBuild and began a journey that has brought me to the place I am right now. YouthBuild provided me with a sense of purpose. I learned about giving back to my community and was encouraged to get involved in community decisions. I was motivated to examine my life and gain a better understanding of my struggles and successes and in doing so realized that there might be other young people who were facing the same obstacles and hurts. My goal was to make a difference in my family and my community.

The Director of YouthBuild McLean County, Suzanne Fitzgerald, saw something in me that I couldn't see myself. Not only did she help me understand the needs of the community and the business of social work, she provided me with the greatest tools that you can give a young person; hope, accountability, and encouragement. To Suzanne I will be forever grateful for her vision and understanding of young people. She truly believes in the power of the youth voice.

Over the past 15 years since I graduated from YouthBuild, I have served in the roles of Leadership Development Coordinator at YouthBuild McLean County, Street/Gang Outreach Worker, School Youth Interventionist and now Community Impact Manger for United Way of McLean County. All of these experiences have put me in touch with some great individuals in my community and allowed me to create and be a part of great collaborations to support young people.


Michael Donnelly leading a workshop of YouthBuild students

In my current role I oversee funding for over 60 local non-profit agencies. My two main areas of oversight include education programming and community supports and basic needs. In these areas I work closely with programs who deliver educational programs to young people in our community and agencies that address individual and family basic needs. One of my greatest accomplishments professionally was creating a summer jobs program for youth in my community. The program to date has served over 300 young people the last 6 years. In my current position and when creating the summer jobs program collaboration, relationship building, and effective communication are key factors. Through being involved with leadership development, YouthBuild helped me understand how to build meaningful relationships and how to work across sectors to address community issues.

It's amazing for me to think of my journey over these 15 years. All the people I've met, all the young people I've gotten a chance to know, and most important, after a hard day at work, I get to go home and share my journey with my wife of 19 years and keep my boys encouraged as they continue on their path towards success.

There's one final thought that I would like to share. In a time in my life when all that was left was prayer and asking for forgiveness, I'm thankful that there was a higher power that intervened in my life and showed me the way. As you are reading this please be encouraged that the world does not have the answers we search for, but there is a higher power that can show us the way, we just have to choose if we want to follow.

I'm forever grateful for my YouthBuild experience.

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