Two Places at Once
For now, Stabler has chosen Lincoln. He and Valenti are committed to tending GTS Youth Club with the goal of turning it into a full-fledged community center.
Today, GTS Youth Club offers after-school basketball, tutoring and mentoring. The club helps students stay on track toward high school graduation and prepares them for college entrance exams like the ACT. It takes high school students on college visits. He’s already reached approximately 150 kids, with about 30 regularly attending the club’s twice-weekly tutoring and group sessions.
How does a full-time college student establish all of that with a budget of basically zero? “I come from nothing,” he said with a tiny grin. “I know how to make something out of nothing.”
Jenna Rhodes, a junior from Exeter, Neb., knows it’s more than that. “He has incredible vision,” she said. And Stabler used that vision to see both forward and backward. To give GTS Youth Club a future, he looked to Nebraska Wesleyan’s past. That past pointed Stabler to First United Methodist Church.
First Church’s roots are as deep as the university’s. When Rhodes and Stabler talked about his goals, they knew First Church could help GTS Youth Club. Rhodes works as an assistant to University Minister Pauletta Lehn and as a First Church intern. “If First Church could help Nebraska Wesleyan get up and running, they could help Angelo, too,” she said.
In short order, First Church gave Stabler use of its gym. They made sure GTS kids had snacks and tables and chairs for tutoring.
Rhodes hung yellow flyers around campus calling for tutors. “Just like that, I got e-mails from history majors, bio majors, math majors, education majors,” she said. “All kinds of people were interested.”
Stabler met with tutors to prepare them for the work ahead. “I gave them some background on the type of kids they’d meet—the types of issues and problems the kids faced.”
Many of the NWU tutors were no strangers to service; some already had substantial volunteer experience abroad. But GTS represented something different.
“People talk about going to Africa to make a difference,” Stabler said. “You have people right here in Lincoln that need help. And you’re not going to feed them food or nourishment in that sense. You’re going to be feeding them knowledge that’s going to carry them for the rest of their lives.” Stabler didn’t want the tutors to underestimate the impact of what they were doing; education quite literally save lives.
Then the tutoring began. “The kids come to First Church from all over town,” Rhodes said. “Some walk or ride bikes to get here. Some have grandparents who drop them off. They know what Angelo is about and they want to be a part of this.”
One of Stabler’s first GTS converts was his cousin, Cody Sheridan, now a senior at Lincoln’s North Star High School. “He rescued me last year,” Sheridan said of Stabler. Sheridan had cut a lot of class to “do stuff I shouldn’t have been doing.” Stabler spoke with Sheridan at a basketball game and described his program. Sheridan came on board with tremendous discipline, making up 30 credit hours in summer school.
Back on track himself, Sheridan is now helping younger GTS kids from straying in the first place. Sheridan coaches the club’s sixth grade basketball team and is GTS’s unofficial chief discipline officer.
“You look around,” Sheridan said, waving an arm at the students and tutors working diligently at a dozen card tables set up in First Church’s gym. Some kids munched on chips and salsa served up by former Lincoln mayor and First Church staff member Coleen Seng (’58) while they worked. “We don’t have any problems in here,” Sheridan said.
And Sheridan is around GTS kids beyond the evening tutoring sessions and basketball games. He has a relationship with administrators and teachers at Dawes Middle School. “I can come by and see how our kids are doing. Make sure they’re doing their work and behaving like they should.” A bad report leads to a conversation with Sheridan and Stabler.
“I like the discipline,” said Jaden Jilg-Brown, a sixth grader who’s seen his grades improve since joining GTS. “School’s the most important thing for me. School and family.” He said the discipline that GTS has instilled has helped make things easier for his mother. “Angelo and Cody push me to go the right way.”
After the tutoring sessions, Stabler leads discussions with the entire group. “The tutors can take off at that point,” said Rhodes, “but I love to stay and see how the kids respond to Angelo. They go over what they’re working on and he puts it all together; he reminds them why they’re working so hard—what it’s all for.”
The students in GTS Youth Club have been let down or written off in the past, and they don’t listen to just anyone. “But they have so much respect for Angelo,” Rhodes said. “He talks and they listen.”
Stabler remembered driving a van of GTS kids to a basketball game and hearing several boys tease another about his father. He pulled over.
“I asked them right there in the van to raise their hand if their fathers were active in their lives. Just three hands went up. That means 12 of them were growing up without fathers. I said, ’When you’re older, do you want your kids to go without a dad?’ They all said no. I said, ‘Okay then, this is what you have to do.’”