Speaking to the Kids of the Echo Glen Youth Detention Center

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The Thursday Think Tanks are semi-random thoughts that may not necessarily fall directly into the category of finances, but I still feel are worth sharing. Read at your own risk!

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I have a pretty rad job. First of all I work in videogames, which just by itself is a dream job for millions of stoners and teenagers around the world. My job has afforded me incredible opportunities to travel the world to places like Germany, England, Finland, and Sweden, and has given me once-in-a-lifetime experiences like sharing the stage at San Diego Comicon with Terry Crews.

My life could have taken a very different turn however. As I’ve mentioned here in the past, I come from a very small town and was the first male in my family to graduate high school. In my early youth, around the age of 12 believe it or not, I started drinking almost every single weekend. The details are not important, but my best friend at the time went on to a life of crime and most recently was involved in an officer-involved shooting in the state he now resides. His mother has reached out to me several times to ask if I can help him with his meth addiction, but each time I reach out, I get no response.

So I’m at least modestly aware that my life could have gone in a very different direction with a couple of bad choices. Those bad choices, like the bad financial choices I have made, could have then snowballed and put me into a really bad situation in the blink of an eye.

So with that in mind, when a current co-worker and close friend of mine asked me 5 years ago if I’d be interested in speaking to the students of the Echo Glen Youth Detention Center, I jumped at the opportunity.

Echo Glen is located in the Seattle area of Washington, and houses some kids who have made the worst choices imaginable. If you can think it, they’ve probably done it.

In the weeks leading up to my first visit to Echo Glen, I frankly started to get just a bit nervous. These were rough kids, and in many cases they were kids who had been incarcerated at one facility, deemed too problematic, and were then transferred to Echo Glen. Even though they were mostly teenage age, I still felt intimidated by them without ever having even stepped foot onto their campus.

There were 3 of us that represented our company that day, and we all met in the parking lot of the large Echo Glen grounds. The looks on our faces told the story that we were all nervous.

Signs led us into a small waiting room with lots of people seated in chairs. Some had suits and ties on, while others were more business casual in dress. The three of us on the other hand walked in wearing t-shirts and jeans, and I think I might have even had a baseball cap on. We assumed the other folks waiting with us were there for other business reasons with school, so we stepped up the front desk.

“We’re here for the Career Day event,” one of us said.

“Awesome!” the woman behind the counter returned, “We just need photo ideas, and for you to fill out this form here. Make sure you don’t have cell phones, your wallet or any personal items, and we’ll have you step through that metal detector when you head in with everyone else.”

She motioned to the room of suits and ties behind us. Oops… maybe we should have dressed up.

We learned that folks in the room were from companies such as UPS, Costco, and other well-known and well-respected organizations. We nervously chatted with several of them, everyone sharing the same facial expression of not really knowing what to expect.

The time came and we stepped through the metal detectors, down a winding hallway, and then out into the fresh morning air. We were officially on the grounds now. The campus at first glance looked like a summer camp: Large rolling hills of green grass, a small lake or pond, and little cabins dotted the landscape off in the distance.

We were lead into a large building that looked like it was straight out of the 1960s. It was metal and cinder blocks, with large bolts that held beams in  place, and that special safety glass that has the little criss-crossy wires running through it in all of the windows and doors. The floors were covered in shiny tile that made our shoes squeak, and the whole thing flung me directly back to my high school days.

To add to the overall odd feel of the place, it was dead silent. Not a student was in sight, and it almost felt as though we were being walked through an abandoned school next to a nuclear accident site.

Almost sensing our uneasiness, our guide spoke up with a smile, “Don’t worry. The kids will be coming down from their cabins after you get settled in. They are VERY excited to meet with you, and were thrilled when we told them what some of you did for a living.”

She then leaned over to the three of us and whispered, “You guys are going to go over HUGE. They were most excited to talk with the folks working in videogames.”

We were lead into a large gymnasium filled with several tables and chairs, each arranged in the same way with a single table out front for the speakers to sit or stand behind, and around 20 chairs facing each table. Thin dividers separated each group, and we were brought to each one and told which companies would be stationed at which location, with the idea being that the students would then cycle through in groups so that each group got to meet with each company.

It was also at this point that we found out we’d be sharing our table with the guy from UPS. He wasn’t wearing a suit, but he had a neatly pressed shirt on, ultra-clean slacks, and the shiniest shoes I think I’ve ever seen in my entire life. He looked like a million bucks, and even before we ever met a single one of these kids, we knew he was in for a long day.

We got settled in, which for the UPS guy involved neatly laying out pamphlets, reading through his notes, and patting at his head to make sure every hair was in place.

For the 3 of us, we got ready by awkwardly standing at the table and watching the dorky UPS guy prepare.

The students began to funnel in, and that’s when I saw them for what they were: Kids.

They didn’t look mean or aggressive for the most part. They looked like any other kid you might bump into on the street. Some were chatting as they walked, others were giggling, and some were commenting on the Career Day by saying things like, “I’ve never seen tables in the gym like this. I hope this isn’t boring!”

We were all a bit nervous as we began to speak, but the 4 of us introduced ourselves and then the UPS guy graciously threw to us and said we could take the first turn at presenting. Our group was well-versed in public speaking, thanks to trade shows, PR events, and press interviews, so after the initial butterflies disappeared, we regaled the students with stories of game making, education, and bad choices we had made along the way.

The critical point we tried to get across to them was that the mistakes of youth can be overcome, and they still had a lot of life ahead of them. We told them our own personal stories, and let them understand that you can get a very good job in videogames (and several other professions) via commitment, hard work, and a good positive attitude.

I said, “I can tell you right now that I have never asked a single potential candidate if they were ever in a youth detention facility as a child. I know some of you feel as though you’ve made mistakes that you’ll never overcome, but trust me when I say that you still have time.”

Then a hand went up.

My co-worker called on them, “Yes, you have a question?”

“YEAH… I got a question,” the girl replied, “Do all 3 of you smoke weed? Because I heard you can work in videgames and still smoke weed.”

Before anyone could answer, she pointed at my co-worker and said, “I know you smoke weed.” Then she pointed to my other co-worker, “I know you smoke weed too.” Then she pointed at me and said, “I’m not sure about you, but I think you probably smoke weed.”

This of course resulted in a roar of laughter from our group, and caused several other groups to look over in our direction. We were into this 20 minutes, and we were already the rowdy group.

The UPS guy looked appalled by the question. I stepped in and replied, “You probably aren’t wrong with your assumptions about us up here.” More laughter. “Here is the bottom line: If you show up, and you do your job, and you are dependable and gracious to those around you, and you show that you want to learn and be the best you can be in this career, nobody gives a f*ck about much else. Show up and do your job, show me that you have talent, and I’ll hire you tomorrow.”

I meant every word I said.

The simple fact is that at that point it wasn’t about talking to her about the dangers of drugs, or chastising her for asking a drug question at a career conference. We were there to let them know that they had choices in life, and they could be something regardless of past issues.

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Fun Fact: If drug testing became mandatory in the videogame industry, the videogame industry would collapse in less than a week. True story. It’s never really been my thing, but I can tell you from 20+ years in the industry that we are a creative group who loves to “expand our minds.”

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A few more questions about schooling, and how to break into the industry, and it was time to throw to our friend from UPS.

“Good morning,” he began in the driest of tones, “I’d like to talk to you about exciting opportunities within UPS, and our extensive benefits package. We offer 401k with match, flexible hours, highly competitive salary, and our employees start with 2 weeks of vacation per year.”

That same girl raised her hand again, “That’s all great, but I still need to go back to these 3 and ask a question again: You mean to tell me you can smoke weed and still work in videogames? That’s just crazy.”

It’s funny now, because with all of the things I’ve learned about finances in the past 7 months, if I was standing their today I probably would have replied, “Actually I need you to really pay attention to what he said. That 401k with match, if properly invested in, can allow you to retire and be financially independent by the time you’re 40!”

I didn’t know any of that at the time though, so the only thing that happened was the UPS dude got frustrated and sternly retorted, “Oh… I guess you don’t want to work for the 2nd largest parcel delivery service in North America. MY BAD.”

The day didn’t get any easier for the UPS guy, and our group didn’t get any quieter. The kids LOVED asking us about making videogames, and we had a great time interacting with them. We gave them tips on software, told us they could email us any time with questions, and in general tried to encourage them. That’s the great thing about videogames is that you can be a coder, a writer, an artist, a designer, an audio engineer, a marketer, or a producer, and still find work in games.

What we learned is that these are good kids who made bad choices. A good portion of the time, they came from incredibly messed up childhoods that gave them little opportunity to do much else other than fail, and the choices they made as a result compounded and snowballed and got them into a lot of trouble. Yet at their core, they were still just kids. They had crushes, they made fart jokes, they liked videogames, and they truly couldn’t solve the puzzle of how to get back to just being kids again.

Afterwards the head of the event told us, “This is seriously the best Career Fair we’ve ever done. The kids are absolutely buzzing about speaking with you guys. They appreciated your honesty and sincerity, and I’ve had many already ask when you’re coming back.”

Then she added, “But next time we’re going to have to get you your own room. We did get complaints about the noise level from some of the other presenters.”

The co-worker who originally invited me and I have been back several times to speak now, and each time we’ve brought along a new “third” to provide prospective on other disciplines.

It’s heartbreaking to see the look of despair on some of the kids’ faces, as though they’ve already given up hope and feel lost at such a young age. We try to show them that they aren’t alone, and that things can get better if they start now.

We’ll go back as many times as they will have us. If we give even one student hope each time, it’s totally worth the effort.

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It’s odd, because as I was writing this post, I started to see similar threads in my motivation for writing this blog. I want to show people in tough financial situations that they can still recover from bad choices if they start right now. I also want to help everyone understand that they aren’t alone in this or anything else in the world.

There is almost no bad choice in life that can’t be overcome with time and dedication to righting the wrong. Humans are inherently good and trying to do the right thing, so if you see someone struggling, try not to judge. Try to help them.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep digging!

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If you’ve got a similar experience such as an event you volunteer for, or a way you give back, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below. My wife and I are always looking for ways we can help others, so thoughts and ideas are more than welcome!

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