Joe Sims made me cry yesterday. In a good way.
Sims, 30, is a social worker in Crestview who works for the United Methodist Children’s Home. It is a group home for children who are in the state foster care system.
It is the kind of work that can be soul-grinding -- an endless parade of kids from bad family backgrounds to whom bad things may have happened -- but Joe loves it.
Because he sees a little of himself in some of them.
Sims grew up in Brownsville, the second-oldest of four children and the only boy. Both of his parents worked and raised their family in a two-bedroom house on West Gonzalez Street. With his folks both working, they did a good job raising their children, but Sims says “they couldn’t watch all of us all of the time.
“Lots of times we just fended for ourselves. It was easy to get involved in ignorant stuff going on in the neighborhood all the time. The guys in the neighborhood, they were kinda like my brothers in a sense, so what they did, I wanted to do.”
He could have gone that way -- crime, drug dealing, hanging out and the like.
But Sims went another way. He was an eighth-grader at Brownsville Middle School when he got this letter at home about the Take Stock in Children scholarship program.
“I thought it was a joke at first. My mom was like, ‘You got a letter from school about something where you could get a scholarship and have college paid for,’ and I was like, ‘What?!’
“It ended up being the real thing.”
The “real thing” is a statewide program that matches mentors with students from poor families who apply to the program.
Students get a mentor with whom they meet at least once a week to talk, work through problems in school, whatever they need. Students who complete the program by keeping at least a 2.5 GPA, meeting citizenship and attendance requirements, and staying away from crime and drugs, get an $8,400 college scholarship.
The Florida Prepaid Foundation matches the donations dollar for dollar, says Sally Lee, who directs the program through the Escambia County Schools Foundation.
It wasn’t always easy.
He didn’t always stay on the right path in school -- “sometimes I fell off” -- but he knew there was going to be someone, Lee or one of his other mentors through the years, looking for him to do well, calling him to make sure he was still in school and on task.
Which made him want to get back on the right track.
“Even when I messed up they didn’t come at me with authoritative thing,” Sims says. “They said, ‘Alright, you fell out, get back on the horse.’ When people had an expectation of me doing good and everyone around was telling me how I could do more, it worked.”
It was a bumpy road. He started at Pensacola State college; he went to Florida A&M University for a year, but he got a little discouraged and left FAMU, but “Miss Sally called me all the time. She stayed on me.” He ended coming back to the University of West Florida and finished his degree in social work there.
“Now I’ve been inspired by this to keep going. I see people in my family, they get comfortable with their limitations. I’m trying to get my master’s degree now.”
No one in his immediate family has finished college. “So when I walked across that stage, saw my mom crying, it was a good feeling.”
His youngest sister is in school in Oklahoma, and is in Africa now doing missionary work for her church. He says the two of them motivate each other to keeping on pushing.
“It’s not all about the financial aspects. We may not be in it for the money, we say, but we are rich in the soul.”
Sims clearly sees that payment for a life’s work can come in many forms.
“When you see the impact you can create in one person with just a small thing, it creates a good feeling in you. I think I am good at it (the job), because I’ve got a lot of understanding for these kids. Certain of them will come back and be like, “Thanks, Mr. Joe.” and it’s rewarding.”
He is married, and he and his wife, Arkesha, 26, haven’t started their own family yet. They met at FAMU; she graduated from UWF as well with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.
She works at Baptist Hospital in the behavioral medicine unit with adult Baker Act patients. When their funds get right, she’ll go back to school, too, to pursue her master’s degree.
Sims is a true believer in the power of paying it forward. Sometimes, he says, he thinks about Mr. Stone, his 10th grade history teacher at Pensacola High School.
“He used to stay on me all the time,” he says. “But I think he got discouraged with teaching and quit. I’ve been trying to find him, because I want to tell him that I grasp it now. You know when you are young, people try to tell you and you don’t hear them. That’s what motivates me now”.
When Sims talks about it, you can hear the gratitude well up in his voice. He means it so much that the sound of it in his voice made me cry, which is a great testament to his character -- and to what seems like a dearth of the same spirit in others of us sometimes.
The lesson is out there being taught; we need only be willing to hear it.