Ex-Gophers Help Kids At-Risk
When Mark Sheffert attends tonight’s 25th Anniversary Gala in Minneapolis for the Bolder Options youth mentoring organization, his mind could flash back to not so pleasant childhood memories.
Sheffert, 70, spent his early years in Nebraska before moving to Minnesota and then playing football for a short time with the Gophers before an injury ended participation. He has been a prominent businessman for decades in Minneapolis. As head of Manchester Companies he is a nationally known advisor in financial, strategic, leadership and governance issues that challenge companies experiencing change, and even crisis.
Through the years Sheffert has served on 56 boards for businesses and nonprofits including the Bolder Options organization that mentors boys and girls ages 10-14 in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Rochester. As board chair for Bolder Options, he sees an organization that stirs his emotions and memories.
“We lived on welfare in Lincoln, Nebraska so I know what it’s like to be poor,” Sheffert said. “I know what it’s like to have kids make fun of you when you’re poor. It’s probably why I am as tough as I am.”
Bolder Options, under the direction for more than two decades of Gopher football great Darrell Thompson, has served over 1,400 youth including those referred to the organization for school truancy or court ordered issues—boys and girls who can benefit from one-on-one mentoring and services such as academic and wellness counseling. Volunteer mentors (including Adam Thielen from the Vikings) engage with mentees weekly for two to four hours for a whole year. The Bolder Options staff provides academic, health and leadership development for youngsters, some of whom are at risk of joining gangs.
Sheffert has long realized that without the attention of caring adults, kids can make bad decisions that ruin their lives. Years ago he started a local organization called Partnering for Youth. “There was a burning part of my gut that said I need to do something to help kids—(the idea) that we could influence kids who were in their early teens, or earlier than that even,” he said.
While growing up Sheffert was fortunate, despite the family’s poverty, to have a mom and dad who provided him and his siblings with a moral compass. “They kept our feet to the fire,” he said.
But assistance in how to choose between right and wrong is not so readily available for many youth, and that was on Sheffert’s mind when he started his nonprofit. “Our mission was to attempt to instill a conscience in kids so that they knew the difference between right and wrong. …If they have a conscience, they will have confidence. If they have confidence and a conscience they are going to be okay in life, and they’ll make good decisions.”
Sheffert’s nonprofit made strides during its 18 months of existence but he also learned about Bolder Options from Ezell Jones, another former Gopher football player and a friend of Thompson’s. They all realized the work and goals of Bolder Options and Sheffert’s organization were so similar it made sense to merge the two.
The merger that took place a few years ago “kept things from duplicating” and provided more resources to Bolder Options. “There are already too many charities out there chasing too few dollars,” Sheffert said.
Sheffert knew and liked Thompson prior to the organizations merging. During Sheffert’s four years as Bolder Options Board Chairman his admiration for Thompson has increased, and he refers to the 50-year-old Rochester native as a leader with great passion for at-risk kids. It’s been a productive partnership between the two men with Thompson thankful for lessons learned from Sheffert involving strategy, leadership and relationships.
As a youngster Thompson’s parents nurtured him in caring for others and making a difference in the world. Certainly Thompson has helped do all that at Bolder Options where he has become part of people’s lives even beyond the official mentoring experience the organization provides. There have been invitations to birthday parties, graduation events and even years later news from those who went through the Bolder Options program and now have their own families. “That piece is really a big deal,” Thompson said.
Thompson said that in 2017 the one year completion rate of youth participating in the Bolder Options program was 75 percent. He compared that with a national average of 50 percent for all mentoring organizations. He is also proud “90 percent” of those mentored by his nonprofit choose to continue with Bolder Options beyond their first year.
What Thompson has seen in his 23 years with Bolder Options is that it’s not just youth, but also families who are impacted. He told the story of a woman whose child was in the mentoring program and that allowed her to take a step back and evaluate her life including her bipolar disorder. She went on to earn a college degree and works for Homeland Security. “She learned that she should never give up, and she wants people to know that,” Thompson said.
The gala tonight is sponsored by Sheffert’s Manchester Companies and over 400 people are expected to attend the 25 year celebration that has targeted a fundraising goal of $200,000 to help with Bolder’s annual budget of $1.4 million. Some of the revenues will come from a silent auction that includes a “summer house party” with Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck and a golf foursome hosted by Thielen.
Part of the agenda tonight will include presentation of the Bolder Options 2018 Alan and Diane Page Legacy Mentoring Award to WCCO Radio’s Dave Lee. Thompson is also pleased that there will be an announcement his organization has created a new alumni coordinator position as part of his small staff.
The gala audience will see a video telling the Bolder Options story, and they will hear from a woman who will talk about how the organization impacted her life as a youngster. Her four to six minute talk will surely be among the most inspiring moments of the evening.
The tribute will remind Thompson, his staff, Sheffert and other board members about what an influence Bolder Options can have on the lives of those it serves. “I believe in what I do,” Thompson said.