STACEY WALKER Mentoring takes UI political science student beyond rough neighborhoods and childhood tragedy to a national spokesperson role for the Boys and Girls Club of America.
After losing his mother to violence and growing up in a tough neighborhood, Stacey Walker recognizes in his background what early social awareness and ambition can do to shape a life, and fully understands the power of mentorship.
Walker, a University of Iowa senior studying political science, hopes his interest in public policy and his continuing involvement as a spokesperson for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America (BGCA) will help inspire the next generation.
“Relationships are what life’s about,” he says. “People will say it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Inherent in that is what kind of relationships you have with the people around you.”
Walker and his younger sister moved in with their grandmother, Shirley Martin, after their mother was murdered when Walker was 4 years old. It wasn’t long before Walker recognized that he had company in his circumstance in the rough-and-tumble Oak Hill neighborhood of Cedar Rapids.
“None of my friends grew up in a nuclear household,” Walker says. “We live in Iowa, which is largely comprised of homogenous white culture, but in our neighborhood we saw the same down-and-out, destitute black faces. All of us were in the same boat.”
Walker and his friends avoided the circle of drugs and violence by participating in an afterschool program at the Jane Boyd Community House, just blocks from where they lived. Later, the management relocated and started the Cedar Rapids chapter of the BGCA, which received its charter in 1993.
There, Walker’s interest in sports took hold. He became a three-sport athlete in high school, and still managed time for mock trial and debate. Walker also settled into a mentoring role with BGCA.
This BGCA leadership role created a moment described by Walker as “the great compromise.” Shortly before high school graduation, Walker was invited to vacation in Cancun, Mexico, with a friend’s family for spring break. When he approached a BGCA mentor about the trip, he was shocked at the response: you can’t go.
“At the time I was a candidate for a collegiate scholarship. All 1.4 million kids in the BGCA are eligible; maybe a couple thousand apply for it each year,” Walker says. “I’d won the local competition but I didn’t think I’d have a chance at winning at the regional level, much less national. But the club insisted I go to Chicago for the interview.”
The club offered to pay the fee to change his flight so that he could leave Cancun one day early and arrive in Chicago for the competition.
“If the club was willing to do that for me, I knew I had to give it a shot,” Walker says.
He reluctantly left Cancun a day early and made it to his interview in Chicago. He won the regional competition and advanced to Washington, D.C., along with five other finalists. There, he attended a congressional breakfast and met with Iowa senators. Later he was installed in the Oval Office by President George W. Bush and received a Presidential Service Award.
“That whole experience was just incredible,” he says. “It’s been a ride ever since.”
Walker served as a national spokesperson for the club, a role that took him to many domestic and international forums. He met and developed relationships with such notables as Sen. Orrin Hatch and actor Denzel Washington in the process. This last semester he participated in a health and fitness event held by the BGCA to fight childhood obesity. Other panel members included Olympians Shawn Johnson, Dominique Dawes, and Dr. Tenley Albright.
“We looked at everything from why Americans aren’t active enough to issues of self-esteem and image with women,” Walker says. “This is what I enjoy most: seeing people come together, trying to get genuine results.
“It seems like every other month I’m getting called to do something cool. I’ve been given the opportunity to meet and be influenced by some of the greatest thinkers and minds.”
Once Walker arrived at The University of Iowa—he spent a semester studying business and playing football at Drake University before transferring—he found equally influential experiences in the Department of Political Science.
In the spring of 2009, Walker participated in the Hawkeye Poll. “Students spend around 18 hours polling—for a political science major, the experience is fascinating,” he says. “Our results provide an invaluable resource to elected officials, pundits, and international publications.”
Walker would like to continue pursuing his interests in graduate school, with a focus on communications and public policy. “I want to keep working and serve as a role model for those who came from a similar situation,” he says. “I’ve been lucky enough to have people look out for me, starting with my grandmother.”
His grandmother had gone back to college in her 50s to become a nurse. She worked night shifts at Cedar Rapids hospitals so she could take care of Walker and his sister during the day. She eventually retired to keep up with their increasingly busy schedules.
“The people around us did nothing with their lives. The environment was rampant with drugs,” Walker says. “She kept us in church and she kept us active. She accomplished a great deal, things that can’t be measured in terms of income.”
story by Stephen Cain; photo by Tim Schoon