'A beautiful gesture'

'A beautiful gesture'

Shelby Rowan has had a rough life. No two ways about it.

He lived with his mom in a homeless shelter, on and off, for the first 14 years of his life.

His dad wasn’t in the picture. One brother died at birth. Another spent time in jail.

Then his mom developed cancer, and she died in August 2010 — “Aug. 8, at 10:30 at night,” he says, still remembering.Blog Photo

The two were close, but Rowan wasn’t able to be with her that night. He had been placed in a Decatur residential center the previous May, after his mom was hospitalized and could no longer take care of him. His sister tried to take him in but had issues of her own.

It was a difficult transition, but Rowan has made huge progress thanks to a devoted foster mom, support from extended family and the Cunningham Children’s Home in Urbana. That’s where Shelby attended school, at the Circle Academy, and where he now is part of a bridge program to help 18- to 21-year-olds learn to live independently.

He’s held several jobs through a Cunningham training program, at the University of Illinois food service and the Java Connection in Rantoul. He’s also helped out at the Stone Creek Church food pantry, carrying boxes or “whatever they want me to do.”

Last week, he took it a step further. Valentine’s Day, his mother’s birthday, has always been a tough time for him, and he wanted to do something special to honor her this year.

He was going to write a poem and read it in a memorial garden in his great-aunt’s yard. But that plan fell through when she broke her arm.

So he decided to volunteer his time at the Daily Bread Soup Kitchen, to serve other homeless people and raise awareness about their needs.

“Everyone goes here,” he said, gesturing to the line of 25 people lined up waiting for lunch at Daily Bread on Friday, when the high was in the 20s.

Rowan showed up around 10:45 a.m. and quickly got to work in the kitchen, running plates and cups through the dishwasher and loading them on shelves like a regular.

He talked about his mom as he stacked trays: “She was a great person,” he said. “She was fun to be with.”

“She loved tea,” he said. “My favorite thing was to make her tea.”

They enjoyed cooking together at the Restoration Urban Ministries shelter — chicken, meatloaf, anything. It’s another reason he thought the soup kitchen was appropriate.

“What a great thing to honor your mother that way,” volunteer Mary Ellen O’Shaughnessey said.

Rowan was focused, even as some of the regulars talked to him about his No. 4 Yadier Molina Cardinals jersey — not his favorite player, as it turns out. That would be David Freese, star of the 2011 World Series, the year Rowan got to see a bunch of Cardinals games while living at the Webster-Cantrell center in Decatur. He’s been a Cardinals fan since “Day 1, my whole life.”

The Daily Bread folks later told his caseworker, Marie Duffin, that he was their best kitchen volunteer of the day. He gets that a lot.

“Every time he gets a chance to be helpful, he just gets rave reviews for what a great worker he is,” Duffin said.

Two years ago, she said, this wouldn’t have been possible. After 21/2 years at the Decatur treatment center — where he dealt with emotional and behavioral difficulties stemming from the instability of homelessness — Rowan returned to Champaign-Urbana in November 2012 only to grieve anew for his mother. He would get depressed or act out on her birthday.

“The fact that he was able to come up with such a beautiful gesture for his mother this year is a sign of his strength and his progress,” said Duffin, who also served food on Friday. “It was the most joyful day. I was so proud.”

Cunningham tries to build that sense of generosity into their kids, but it doesn’t always work, said Sharla Jolly, director of advancement. Rowan is different. A full 6 feet tall, he dressed like an elf for Cunningham’s Christmas celebration. He has, she said, “a great spirit.”

“It’s such a cool thing for a kid who’s come from such a difficult past and has made such progress,” Jolly said. “When you’ve had nothing, the tendency is not to want to give. To see this in him has just blown us all away.”

A lesson for all of us trying to figure out how to instill generosity in our own kids.

Rowan said he likes helping people, “because I never really had help growing up. It was terrible, being homeless.”

Life has continued to throw him curveballs. His grandpa died last year. His grandma recently suffered a stroke.

“It’s been rough. Cunningham made it less rough,” he said, by providing “comfort. They gave me a home.”

He hopes to attend Parkland College someday, and possibly become a police officer.
“I want to be the cop that people say, ‘I like that guy,’” he said.

What would his mom think of what he did on Friday?

“She would think it was pretty great.”


Julie Wurth blogs about kids and families and covers higher education for the News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at 217-351-5226, jwurth@news-gazette.com, or Twitter.com/jawurth.

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rainhorizon wrote on February 17, 2015 at 10:02 pm

May only wonderful things be ahead for you, Shelby.  You've persevered under such difficult circumstances to become a man with a spirit of giving that would make any mother proud.   I hope you follow your dreams!-- and know that others in this community are proud of you and send you love and support.  And to Cunningham Children's Home, thank you for being there to care for children who very much deserve and need it.