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One Man’s Story on How to Empower Whole Communities in a Holistic Way

It’s been my practice to follow each episode of Off the Rak with an article that sums up my guest’s story and a few of the most salient lessons that were shared. But summing up my multilayered conversation with the multilayered Garry Gilliam presented a considerable challenge.

Then it hit me: Garry Gilliam is a whole man with a passion for building whole communities.

Summary accomplished. Now, unpacking that short description is another matter!

Indeed, I can’t. But hopefully what I share here will encourage you to watch the episode, where we scratch a little deeper into the surface of Garry’s life and work, which these days involves an innovative social enterprise known as The Bridge that “transforms properties … into vibrant eco-villages.”

Garry’s backstory is part Horatio Alger, part Moses, part Michael Oher, part Milton Hersey, part … well, there are just too many parts.

His life began in Harrisburg, Penn., where his family was below the poverty line but where teachers soon identified him as intellectually gifted. When he was 8, his mother took Garry to the Milton Hershey School, the private boarding school founded in 1909 by the famed chocolatier and his wife.

While Garry played outside, his mother signed the paperwork for her son’s scholarship to attend the school and, distraught over the pending separation, “essentially Moses me” without telling him that she would see him on weekends and holidays.

“They say a skilled sailor is not made on calm waters,” Garry told me. “So yeah, my waters got choppy rather early. I had to become a skilled sailor pretty quickly, and I think it’s definitely benefited me to this day.”

After the initial confusion and many tear-filled nights, Garry thrived in the school’s “whole child” approach to education. He learned to play the violin and piano, excelled academically, became a chapel leader, and enjoyed sports like track and field, soccer, ice hockey, and football.

He went to Penn State as a 6-foot-5 tight end, and triple-majored in business development, advertising and PR, and psychology. (“I was a nerd trapped in an athlete’s body,” Garry said.) But a knee injury cost him two years on the field, and, slowed by the injury, he moved to offensive tackle for his senior year. The NFL draft came and went without mentioning his name. But he signed as a free agent with Seattle and spent five years with the Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers, playing in 68 games and starting in 31.

His backstory set up a return to Harrisburg, where, at 33, he’s just beginning to write the next chapters of his life. There’s a ton to learn from where he’s been and where he’s going, but here are just three of the things Garry shared in our discussion:

See the odds that are in your favor

When a doctor told Garry he had about a 10% chance of returning to his prior athletic form after his knee injury, his initial response was excitement not despair.

“I’m from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and went to Milton Hershey, which has only ever had one NFL player and its over 100 years of existence,” Garry told the doctor. “And here I am standing in front of you, triple majoring on a full scholarship. No one in my family has ever been to college. Doc, do you know the (odds) of that happening? Probably less than 1%. So I’ll take you’re 10%!”

Make your test your testimony

The long, hard road to recovery, however, tested Garry in many ways, and at one point he was ready to give up football. First, however, he ran the idea by Casey Ainsworth, a teacher at Milton Hershey who was a mentor and second mother in his life. She listened to his woe-is-me monologue for a few minutes and then challenged him to something bigger.

“I hear you,” he recalls her telling him. “But remember, God gives the hardest battles to the strongest soldiers. And what you’re currently going through has nothing to do with you. It’ll be a testimony for the soldiers you lead one day. There is an anointing on your life that you’re not going to understand right now. But I promise you, if you control what you can control – your mindset, your effort and your character – God will take care of the rest.”

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Don’t just do camps

Garry re-committed to his goal of playing in the NFL, but his life has never been about his achievements in sports. He knew all along he would use his education and experiences, along with the money he earned and managed well from his career, to revitalize impoverished communities.

Garry had studied the Hershey model of creating a company town that invested holistically in the families of its workers, providing not only jobs but an ecosystem that included things like education, arts, parks, and affordable housing. He wondered why more business titans didn’t replicate that model.

In the NFL, meanwhile, he realized that many players and their families were financially illiterate because their lives had always focused only on sports. (“I’ve met a lot of broke athletes,” he says. “I have not met very many broke plumbers, you know?”) So he challenged his teammates to think more deeply about their future.

“My main question,” he said, “was always this: Can we go home and do more than just a football camp?”

Then he showed them what “more” can look like.

Garry had written several business plans while in college, and he realized the common denominator in all of them was “a place.” So he founded The Bridge as a unique approach to real estate that takes under-utilized facilities like old schools, shopping centers, warehouses and land and turns them into mixed-use developments based largely on the Hershey model.

“I grew up in a system where a company made the intentional investment into a community and it has yielded (one of) the largest educational endowment in the world, right?” Garry said. “That is nothing to scoff at. And this is going to go in perpetuity because of how Hershey set up the deal. … So I grew up in it. I know it’s possible.”

How does it work? Again, I encourage you to listen to the full interview. You’ll gain a deeper appreciation for Garry’s journey and for the work he’s doing. Then visit the website for The Bridge. It just might inspire you to commit “to do more” with your life, as well.

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