FORT MYERS, Fla. — Erick Scott passed out Sharpies that held the promise of forgiveness.
“We’re going to write whatever it is that’s holding onto us. We’re going to write it on the balloon and let it go up. From this day forward, don’t think on it. Don’t dwell on it.”
The eight teenagers last week at the Oasis Youth Shelter in Fort Myers thought.
People who bullied me.
The people who killed my cousin.
People who don’t care about me.
My Mom. My Dad.
The shelter serves teenagers who have stopped going to school, runaways, foster kids, troubled kids from troubled families. It was a smaller discussion group than usual as some residents were with family for Christmas break. As the teenagers added to their balloons, Scott urged forgiveness, even if it didn’t come immediately.
“Don’t let them steal y’all’s joy.”
Scott, 36, has a reputation for exuberance at Oasis, a program of Lutheran Services Florida where he has worked about eight years. “I can be boo-hoo crying on the way to work,” said Scott, but he switches on a smile at the door.
As a shift supervisor, he transports, corrals and coaches hard-to-reach teenagers. It’s the kind of job that could lead to burnout. Scott sees it as a blessing, what he was meant to do.
“My goal every day when I wake up in the morning is to make a mark in somebody’s life that can never be erased,” he said.
Earlier this year, Scott won Youth Care Worker of 2018 out of 700 potential candidates from the nonprofit Florida Network of Youth and Family Services. Oasis manager Raymond Ballinger nominated him.
“The shelter feels like a better place when ‘Mr. E’ is in the building,” wrote Ballinger, who praised Scott’s caring presence and love for the job, early-to-work, late-to-leave devotion, and his innate ability to meet kids where they are at. (Oasis won agency of the year.)
This path wasn’t what Scott intended. He grew up in Fort Myers housing projects and wove early dreams of playing professional football. That didn’t happen. He worked at airports. He drove a truck. But he hated truck driving and searched for work with meaning.
Enter Oasis. “This is my NFL right here,” he said, though the pay does not quite compare. He started at $12.50 an hour and has had raises but lost track of his hourly wage. “To be real with you, I don’t even look at my check.”
Teenagers appreciate the compassion, love and respect he offers, he said. Often they reach out after they leave. He’s been invited to weddings. A young man he didn’t recognize in Walmart told him a talk they had at Oasis changed his life.
His faith, he believes, drives him to excel.
By the time he arrives for his 6 a.m. shift, he has prayed three times. First he thanks God for the day. Before leaving, as his wife sleeps, he prays with his 15-year-old son. In his Dodge truck in the Oasis parking lot, he prays for Oasis kids and staff. Let us have a wonderful day.
Once inside, he turns on gospel music.
Lupita Diego, 15, said Scott knows when to offer support. She escaped an abusive boyfriend before coming to Oasis. Her parents are in Guatemala, she said. “Even though I’ve been through a difficult situation he tells me there’s going to be a happy ending.”
Last week, during the discussion, Scott shared his own struggles with forgiveness.
He, too, grew up without a father. He, too, lost a loved one to gun violence. His brother was shot and killed on Mother’s Day. One of the people arrested in connection, a young woman, took a plea deal, he said, and was apologetic in court. He forgave her.
“The thing is I didn’t forgive her for her. I forgave her for myself. You’ve got to forgive for yourself. That is a hard thing to do, but that thing right there, it will set you free.”
Scott led the teenagers into the shelter’s spare backyard.
“On the count of three,” he counted down.
The teenagers lifted their balloons to a cloud-streaked blue sky. They let go, cheering and laughing as the words floated away. “I won’t miss you!” said one. They watched until the balloons became distant specks. It looked something like a happy ending.