Building a Bond – 28 Years and Counting
Perhaps math tutoring isn’t exactly Smitty Flynn’s strong suit, but that didn’t stop him from finding a way to connect with former CIS student Daryl McCain, way back in 1986 at J.T. Williams Junior High. The school is now closed, but in 1986 it was where CIS began its first year of operation in Charlotte, with 80 students. One of those students was Daryl McCain, then a 7th grader, who was matched by CIS to Smitty to get help with math. The two soon discovered, though, that Daryl had a stronger grasp of 7th grade math than Smitty!
But what Smitty did have was a heart – and tenacity. He didn’t know Daryl well yet, but instinct told him that Daryl could probably benefit from having another adult to talk to, to take an interest in him. So Smitty started taking Daryl to McDonald’s once a week in the morning before school, and they just talked and “hung out.”
Today – 28 years later – they are still getting together, still “hanging out.”
Daryl, now 43, says Smitty has been “such a ray of sunshine” in his life. “But I didn’t feel that way at first,” he said. “Let me tell you, I was a mean cat back then – all I knew was the streets. I know I put more than a few of those gray hairs on his head.”
“Daryl had a lot going against him,” said Smitty, “in terms of the extremely rough neighborhood he lived in, a father who was mostly absent from his life and the temptations of the “street life” he was surrounded by every day. But he had such a great personality – everybody loved Daryl. I just felt this instant connection with him.”
The connection wasn’t quite so “instant” with Daryl. Daryl recalls thinking he’d never see this guy again after the school year ended, figuring Smitty was just another person who would move on from his life, who couldn’t possibly understand Daryl’s world and the struggles he and his family faced every day. He says it’s “a miracle” he’s still here today. “All of my friends from the neighborhood – except for one – are either dead or serving long prison sentences,” said Daryl. “I truly didn’t expect to see age 25.”
But one hot summer day, Daryl couldn’t believe his eyes when Smitty drove up to his house and told his mom he wanted to take Daryl to a Young Life camp at Windy Gap, NC. Daryl was amazed that Smitty had tracked him down, but camp was not on his “agenda” for the summer – he did not want to go. It took lots of convincing from his mother – and Smitty not taking “no” for an answer – that finally got Daryl on the bus headed to Windy Gap.
Camp turned out to be a great experience overall, says Daryl. But most importantly, it was at camp that a defining moment occurred between them. Neither Daryl nor Smitty recalls exactly what Daryl did, but in Daryl’s words, he was “acting out” and broke some significant camp rules and got in trouble. “But Smitty stood up to me,” remembers Daryl. “And he did not back down. It was clear he would get ‘physical’ with me if he needed to, and it was clear he was in charge and was not going to take my attitude.”
The incident at camp was the first crack in Daryl’s streetwise persona and armor of distrust. “I used to see just how far I could go with him, what I could get away with, and that didn’t end overnight,” said Daryl. “But after the camp situation, I remember thinking, ‘I have got to give this man respect.’ I didn’t want to admit it, but I really needed a man in my life, and Smitty was there for me.”
Smitty has stayed in Daryl’s life, through some serious ups and downs, for 28 years now. Daryl thinks of Smitty, his wife Jill, and their two daughters as family, and they feel the same way. “They put their arms around me and showed me how to love,” said Daryl. “Most of all, they showed me how to love myself.”
Smitty says Daryl has had just as much of an impact on his own life, and that of his family. “I’ve learned so much from Daryl, especially about strength and resilience,” said Smitty. “I think for those of us who come from privileged backgrounds like myself, we really have no idea what some kids – and adults – are up against in just the day to day struggle to survive – from transportation, to housing, to childcare and feeding the family, to pushing back against the negative influences your kid sees every day.”
“It’s all about relationships,” added Smitty. “You can learn a lot about life from someone like Daryl. He has a strong work ethic and a great personality that has served him well over the years. As for our relationship, it seems that Daryl just knowing I am here for him, and will continue to be, is enough.”