Just Call Me Paul

Practical educational and civic transformation.

Just Call Me Paul

“A mentor empowers a person to see a possible future, and believe it can be obtained” – Shawn Hitchcock

If it wasn’t for Paul, I wouldn’t have had the opportunities I currently am having now. I am wrestling for one of the most successful college programs in Division 3 and doing an internship in Washington D.C., where I am gaining first-hand experience in what it means to be a young professional. The impact Paul has had on me as a mentor will forever be something I am grateful for and should be something all kids who are struggling deserve to have.

If you knew me in my wild and crazy teenage years, you would have never guessed that today I dream of wearing a badge and protecting my community. At the age of 13, I was ditching school, failing classes and getting suspended regularly.  For New Year’s, I was invited to a party and, against my mother’s wishes, I went. I was one of the youngest kids, drinking vodka or tequila–can’t remember which one–and thinking I was cool. I ticked off the wrong person, got into a fight, and lost my front teeth. A few days later, Officer Paul Iovino, a Saint Paul police officer, called and told me that my mother reached out to him and she was worried about me. He offered to take me to lunch.

My initial thought was that he was going to lecture me about my bad life choices and tell me that I was on the wrong path, a lecture I’ve had heard many times before. Instead, he took the time to get to understand me. At the first lunch, Officer Iovino told me to just call him Paul. I immediately felt more relaxed. After lunch, we agreed to stay in contact and meet every other week for lunch to talk about how I was doing.

I began to feel comfortable and trust Paul even more when he started to tell me about his childhood. Like my family, his, too, went through difficult times financially in his hometown of Chicago. Both our parents worked countless jobs just to put a meal on the table and sometimes they were not around at all. Paul grew up in a difficult neighborhood where he too got into trouble in school and with the law.

I remember him telling me that the people I was surrounding myself with weren’t bad people but they weren’t going to help me get ahead in life. Paul told me stories about his best friend in high school who is currently serving time for multiple offenses after getting into hard drugs. By the look in his eye, I could tell that it pained him.

He said he wanted to be there to help people make better choices and be the mentor he wished he and his friend had around when they were growing up. I started to appreciate the effort that Paul was going through to build a relationship with me and I began to look forward to our meetings. Our conversations grew deeper and more varied as we talked of everything from religion, life and culture, politics, as well as my favorite, sports.

After a few meetings with Paul, I started to get intrigued about the stories he talked about, including the travels he had done and the adventures that came with it. My favorite story of his travels is how he took a train throughout all of Europe and got to know other cultures. I started to envision myself going on similar trips and doing similar things. I knew from then on that if I didn’t change my ways, I would never be able to do any of those and experience them for myself.

At first, nothing really changed. My group of friends remained the same and I could care less about my education or school. Slowly, over weeks and months, I started to focus more on school and joined two sports team once I got into high school.  I joined the football team and made new friends. I also followed in my older brother’s footsteps and joined the wrestling team.

Sports not only helped me focus on school but kept me active, especially during the cold Minnesota winter months. Whenever he could, Paul would show up and support me. It always felt good to have him there and even when I would lose close matches he would tell me to keep my head up and to keep working hard. When times would got tough and I needed someone to talk to, I would call Paul to keep him in the loop about what was going on in my life and ask for his advice when I needed it. His words of advice that always kept me going was “Understand that life is going to be difficult, you’ve experienced that first hand. If you let it knock you down now, it’s going to be harder to get back up. So, keep fighting to get back up and achieve your goals”.

Paul could have given me this advice when we first met, but it wouldn’t have had the same impact. I know that he means what he says. Our bond of trust is what makes the relationship work and I know he truly wants to see me succeed.

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