On March 23, 2003, a son and a larger purpose were born to Phil Mickelson. His boy, Evan, didn’t take a breath during his first seven minutes outside the womb, and Phil stood over him in the delivery room pleading, “Breathe, Evan, breathe.”
On the other side of the room Phil’s college sweetheart, Amy, had ruptured an artery in her uterus during the delivery and was in danger of bleeding to death. While his wife and son fought for their lives, Phil was swept into a hallway by the medical staff. He sat alone on a bench, his head in his hands, praying. Then he made a covenant that if his loved ones were saved, he would lead a more purposeful life.
Evan and Amy rallied — she would later beat breast cancer — and Phil has made good on his promise. On Monday night, he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, in recognition of his four major championships and 40 career PGA Tour victories (ninth all time), but if there was a hall dedicated to good deeds he would have been enshrined long ago. He has touched people’s lives through random acts of kindness and bold philanthropic initiatives, all of it done quietly, which is the way Mickelson prefers. “He does a lot of stuff I know nothing about,” says Jim Mackay, his close friend and careerlong caddie.
Mickelson, 41, has always enjoyed a deeply personal connection with his fans, thanks to his interaction on the course and the endless autographs he signs when the round is over. (He is also beloved in the service industry because of a penchant for dispensing $100 tips.) In the wake of Evan’s harrowing delivery, Mickelson has become an agent of change, beginning with an eponymous foundation that does not solicit outside contributions. Mickelson is a science nerd and the son of an Air Force pilot, so supporting education and providing for military veterans have become twin passions. In recent years he has found other creative ways to give back. “I’m lucky to be in a position to help,” Mickelson says, and he’d like to leave it at that. It is up to others to tell of his impact outside of golf.
David Finn was born in the wrong body. The 19-year-old from River Edge, N.J., suffers from a mitochondrial disorder that has left his limbs shriveled and his mouth unable to form words. But a broken body can’t suppress the powerful spirit within. David’s bright blue eyes convey intelligence and an eagerness to connect. He has a beatific smile and a honking laugh that supports a sophisticated sense of humor. “One of his teachers liked to say that David was the only kid who ever got his jokes,” says his father, John. Attached to David’s wheelchair is a piece of paper printed with a grid of the alphabet, allowing him to communicate by tapping out words with his crooked fingers. He was a determined enough student to make it through River Dell High, and on graduation day last June he was rewarded with a rousing standing ovation.
He has continued his education at Horizon School, which offers specialized curriculum for students with disabilities, as well as Bergen Community College. A point of emphasis for David is improving his ability to communicate. At Horizon he uses a touch-screen computer with a speaker that articulates whatever David is typing. Recently he was offering a demonstration for a visiting reporter. Asked how he was feeling, David patiently tapped out the perfect answer: “On the spot.”
Later he was asked by his speech therapist, Brittany Arrington, “If you could do anything in the world, what would it be?” David could have chosen to dunk a basketball or slow-dance with Kate Upton or sing at Carnegie Hall. Instead he tapped, “Go to the Masters.”
Pound for pound, David Finn might be the world’s biggest golf fan. “He starts watching with the pregame show on Thursday and doesn’t stop until there’s a winner on Sunday night,” says his mother, Vanessa.
David’s love affair with the game began at the 2005 PGA Championship at Baltusrol Golf Club, a 45-minute drive from the family’s house. During a Tuesday practice round David was parked in his wheelchair behind the 14th green when Mickelson came through. After putting out he walked over to David and said, “Hi, buddy, thanks for coming. Here’s a souvenir for you.” He laid an autographed glove in David’s lap.
Says John, “So many people don’t know how to act around the severely disabled. Pity is the worst possible emotion. The glove was a wonderful gesture, but what made that moment so meaningful was that Phil treated Dave like a normal kid, which is all he wants. Phil gets it. The ease and the grace he displayed says a lot about who he is.”
Despite the challenges of navigating a rain-softened course, David insisted on following Mickelson for the rest of the week. Mickelson continued to acknowledge the presence of his newest fan with an occasional smile, a nod or a thumbs-up. He won that PGA with a 72nd-hole birdie, as David cheered him on from a handicapped seating area behind the green. It was a hugely important moment in Mickelson’s career, as the victory validated his breakthrough at the previous year’s Masters. Yet in the heady minutes immediately after his triumph Mickelson thought of a kid he barely knew. Mackay hustled over to say his boss was wondering if David would like to have a picture taken with the Wanamaker Trophy. The moment was recorded by the Newark Star-Ledger: Phil has the trophy in one hand, and the other is placed tenderly on the left shoulder of David, whose head is thrown back in ecstasy.
Thus began a friendship that endures to this day. Every year David and his parents attend the Barclays and the Deutsche Bank Championship to root for Mickelson, and he invariably finds them in the gallery. David, in turn, has transformed his bedroom into a shrine to golf in general and Mickelson in particular. The signed glove is preserved behind glass. Above his bed is a 2007 Presidents Cup flag autographed by the U.S. team, while another wall displays a windbreaker from the 2010 Ryder Cup. (Mackay has been instrumental in procuring these souvenirs.) David loves to look through a tattered photo album of his PGA Tour adventures, which his three older sisters call The Book of Phil. The book also contains a picture from 2008, when Mackay came to the house for dinner.
For the upcoming summer vacation David is advocating that the family rent an RV and follow the Tour from town to town, a fanciful idea that his parents are considering. “We don’t know what the future holds for Dave,” says John. “It would be a great experience for all of us. The world is a nicer place when you’re traveling with Dave. He brings out the best in people.”
Still, the Finns are not immune to golf’s cruelty. This year’s Easter dinner was a little glum after Mickelson’s triple bogey at the 4th hole cost him a shot at a fourth Masters victory. But David is very much looking forward to watching the telecast of the Hall of Fame ceremonies. Asked why he thought Mickelson was deserving of the honor, David spelled out an impressive response: “Phil is the Arnold Palmer of today.” David’s father gently chastised him for parroting something they had heard on Golf Channel. David thought a bit longer. With great determination, he tapped, “Phil was the first person to make me feel special.”
At first blush, Mirandi Squires has not traveled very far in life. She grew up on the eastern edge of South Carolina, in Georgetown County, what was then a land of dirt roads and tobacco fields. Throughout high school she had a 9 p.m. curfew, and on the eve of her wedding, when she was 21, Mirandi had to be home by 11. The mother of three now commutes to Johnsonville, a two-stoplight town 25 minutes from that childhood home. But through her innovative teaching, Mirandi has brought a new frontier of ideas to Johnsonville Elementary School. In a state that in recent years has seen squabbles about creationism in the legislature and on textbook committees, Mirandi remains committed to what she calls “the magic of science. I want the kids to know that it can open up the world to them.”
Her gifted and talented third-graders consider donning a lab coat and protective glasses a routine part of the school day. To drive home the point that sound is actually vibration, Mirandi recently had her students dip a tuning fork into a cup of water, leading to some very surprised, and very wet, kids. A lesson on composting has resulted in a plastic crate crawling with worms taking up residence in one corner of the classroom. To better understand scale, the kids made out of construction paper a 10-foot-tall Yeti that still looms over them. Mirandi does daily presentations that are run through the first iPad anyone in Johnsonville had ever seen.
“She’s not afraid to go outside our little box and bring in new ideas, new methods,” says Randy Meekins, Johnsonville Elementary’s assistant principal. “It means so much to our kids. They’re getting a world-class education right here in this tiny little town.”
Mirandi is in her 24th year of teaching, but it was in 2009 that, she says, “I learned how to see things through a new lens.” It all began when a student of hers, Erin Altman, was watching golf with her father. “We saw an ad for Phil Mickelson’s teachers’ academy,” says Erin, “and I just knew Miss Squires had to go. It was like destiny.”
Next thing Mirandi knew she was on an airplane for the first time, at age 42. Every summer the Mickelson ExxonMobil Teachers Academy selects 600 teachers from around the country for a week of intensive math and science instruction. The academy has outposts in Houston, New Orleans and Jersey City. The trips are all-expenses-paid, and Mirandi was thrilled to have a view of the New York City skyline from her hotel suite. The teachers are given stacks of lesson plans and materials, with an emphasis on dynamic, hands-on learning. “Everything we were taught was to bring science and math to life,” Mirandi says. A point of emphasis was encouraging students to keep a journal; in Johnsonville her kids keep notebooks bursting with diagrams, charts, chunks of prose and various materials they’ve glued to the pages.
Mirandi calls her time at the academy “life-altering,” and a good deal of the inspiration came from mingling with the host. “When we got to meet Phil, it was obvious how passionate he is about education,” she says. “He talked about how math and science are what keep American industry strong and allow us to compete with other countries. People like to say that children are our future, but Phil and his wife are actually making a real investment in them.”
After returning from the academy Mirandi had the gumption to apply for a presidential teaching award; when she won, she used some of her prize money to invest in her iPad. She is the vice president–elect for the South Carolina Science Council and is also involved in a review of the state’s science curriculum. “I feel it’s my duty to take an active role and try to make a difference,” she says.
Even as Mirandi effects change on the macro level, she continues to stimulate the kids in her class. “When Miss Squires says we’re going to do a new lesson, we don’t moan and groan, we’re happy, because we know she is going to make it fun,” says Lee Ann Tanner, a little pixie who says she wants to be a pharmacist.
“I didn’t like math or science until I came to her class,” says Sarah Baxley, an aspiring nurse. “Now they’re my favorite subjects.”
Mirandi tends to get misty at such testimonials. “Well, bless their little hearts,” she coos. But for all the gentility of this Southern belle, she is not afraid to get her hands dirty in the name of science. After all, someone has to look after the worms in the compost bin.
On June 27, 2006, under a blinding midday sun, a convoy of U.S. Army vehicles rumbled out of Contingency Operating Base Rawa, in Iraq’s Al Anbar province. The mission was to eradicate an insurgent cell that was operating out of a safe house on the banks of the Euphrates River.
Staff Sgt. Jacque (Jake) Keeslar was manning a 50-caliber machine gun from the gunner’s hatch of a Stryker, an eight-wheeled armored fighting vehicle. He was 36 and had traveled a winding path to Iraq.
Growing up in the ski town of Big Bear Lake, Calif., Jake had been a self-described “screw-off,” and he enlisted in the 82nd Airborne in 1990 because “I thought it would be cool to jump out of airplanes.” The structured environment of the Army suited him. At 23 he got married and then welcomed a daughter, Joy. When the marriage fell apart, around the turn of the century, Jake relocated to the Northern Warfare Training Center at Fort Wainwright, near Fairbanks, Alaska. A skilled mountaineer, he taught enlistees cold-weather survival tactics and the art of telemark skiing. In the summer he instructed soldiers in rock climbing. Jake began wooing Vanessa Morrison, a ginger-haired beauty he had nursed a crush on for 15 years, going back to ninth grade. They married in 2002, and they were always dreaming about the future. Jake resolved to put in his 20 years in the Army, which would mean a nice pension. He never expected to go to war, but by ’06 he was sleeping in a tent in the desert. Al Anbar was what Jake calls “the wild west of Iraq,” a region in which teens were routinely paid $100 to plant improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on the roadways. Yet Jake felt he was doing meaningful work, training the Iraqi army and police force.
Naturally, the hardest part was being away from Vanessa. Yet even a world away and having to go an agonizing three weeks between phone calls, they felt connected. “We’re not religious but we’re very spiritual,” says Jake. “Rolling through the desert, I always felt it didn’t matter whether we turned right or left because my path was already determined. That freed me up to do my job because it took away the fear of death.” A few hours before Jake’s unit left for the raid on the safe house, he reached Vanessa by phone. She ended the call with her usual bit of advice: “Keep your head down.” Recently, she added a rueful postscript: “I should have said, Keep your legs up.”
Jake’s Stryker was bouncing along a goat trail when it rolled over a pressure plate buried in the sand, triggering an IED. The explosion tore a three-foot hole in the metal floor of the vehicle. Jake was standing directly above the blast. His back was broken in five places, his pelvis shattered, his liver lacerated and his legs were, in his words, “pulverized.” All he remembers is a flash of blinding light. When Jake came to, he knew he was badly hurt and feared the worst.
“Check my nuts,” he told the medic.
When he got a thumbs-up, Jake closed his eyes and let the morphine wash over him. Four days later he awakened at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. He had two stumps where his legs had been.
Vanessa is a steel magnolia who had worked as a 911 dispatcher. She was trained to be resolute in the face of crisis, but she admits to feeling overwhelmed at the sight of her maimed husband. “When Jake got hurt, it was as if our future was taken away,” she says. “There was so much fear and uncertainty. What would his quality of life be like? If I have to take care of him, how will we pay the bills? Where will we live? For a long time we were living day to day, just trying to survive.”
Jake refused to wallow in self-pity. Five weeks after he woke up in the hospital he completed a five-mile race on a hand-crank bicycle. Three months after that he cranked through the New York City Marathon. “I saw a lot of guys kind of wasting away in Walter Reed,” he says. “That determination to go on — you can’t find that after you’ve been blown up. It has to already be inside of you.”
Golf became a vital part of Jake’s recovery. He had played casually with his father, Art, who learned the game during a stint in the Navy and counted himself as a member of Arnie’s Army. Over the last two decades Art has switched his rooting allegiance to Phil Mickelson. “He has the same gung-ho, go-for-broke style as Arnie,” says Art. “That’s the way I’ve tried to live my life. Jake, too.”
Within months of getting his new steel legs, Jake was on a golf course violently lashing at the ball. “It taught me how to move, how to keep my balance, how to navigate different terrain,” Jake says. “It helped me reintegrate into society. Golf got me out of a dark place. It was a saving grace.”
After 15 months at Walter Reed, Jake was determined to put in his 20 years, and he says he was only the second double-amputee to remain on active duty. He and Vanessa settled in Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego, in housing that was heavily populated by young women whose husbands were overseas. Jake was the embodiment of their worst fears. “It was an awkward time,” he says. “The wives were always nice to me, but I could see the pain in their eyes.”
Seeking a refuge, he and Vanessa had put in an application with Homes for Our Troops, a nonprofit that was founded in 2004 to provide specially adapted houses for injured veterans. From the beginning Mickelson has been a financial supporter and a spokesman. He is also a benefactor to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, which provides college scholarships to the children of fallen special ops personnel. Mickelson coined the name Birdies for the Brave for his efforts to support the military. In ’06 it became one of the PGA Tour’s official charities, and to date more than $7 million has been raised for the eight military charities that benefit from the endeavor. In November, Mickelson will host a two-day fund-raiser at TPC Sawgrass. His ambitious target is to raise $10 million for Birdies for the Brave. “It’s pretty cool that, one way or another, my dad’s favorite golfer helped build my house,” Jake says.
The Keeslars chose a one-and-half-acre plot outside Fallbrook, Calif., about 45 minutes northeast of Camp Pendleton. Last November — nine months after Jake fulfilled his 20 years and walked away from the Army — they moved into a beautiful home with dark hardwood floors and a state-of-the-art chef’s kitchen. Among the house’s many adaptations are wider doorways, lower countertops and cutouts beneath the sink and stove to allow him to roll right up. The master bathroom has a huge wheelchair-accessible shower and the world’s coolest toilet. The big common rooms and expansive backyard have made the Keeslars’ house the default spot for all family gatherings, saving Jake the difficulties of navigating other homes that are ill-equipped for his needs. (There is also an extra bedroom for visits from Joy, 15, who lives with her mom in Ohio.)
“This is our forever house,” says Vanessa. “We’ve been dreaming about it for a long time. But this exceeds our dreams. It feels like a miracle.”
Every house built by Homes for Our Troops is given free of charge. “So instead of sweating a mortgage I can play more golf!” Jake says. His handicap is down to 16.8, and last year he holed a five-iron shot from 185 yards for his first eagle. Jake acquitted himself nicely playing in the pro-am at the 2012 Northern Trust Open, which was merely the latest adventure in an action-packed life. Through a veterans’ organization called Project Healing Waters he has fly-fished in Canada, Chile and Belize. He won a silver medal in wheelchair basketball at the first Warrior Games in 2010. Jake likes to roar through the hills in his neighborhood on a customized chopper, and he can still tear up a mountain on his monoski.
“Jake getting hurt forced both of us to do a lot of soul work, a lot of spirit work,” says Vanessa. “It’s turned him into a beautiful, compassionate person.”
Jake and Vanessa have often ruminated on life’s larger meaning since he was “blown up,” to use his preferred phrase. These days the conversations usually take place when they’re relaxing in their new backyard, palm trees swaying overhead, Palomar Mountain visible in the distance. There is a soothing trickle from the multitiered swimming pool they recently put in with a chunk of their life savings. The house that Mickelson helped fund has become a sanctuary. Jake and Vanessa have a favorite expression reserved for these tranquil moments, when the blast of a roadside bomb feels very far away: “This does not suck.”
New Orleans is more than a city, it’s an idea. Helen Gillet arrived 10 years ago, at 23, with only her cello and the romantic notion that the Big Easy would be a beautiful place to struggle as an artist. “New Orleans represented so many things to me: music, culture, freedom,” she says. Helen didn’t know a soul, but she had her talent and ambition and an instrument she had always leaned on.
She was born to an American mother in Belgium, her father’s homeland. He was a successful banker, and Helen led what she calls a “very, very privileged childhood.” She took up the cello at nine, while living in Singapore and attending a French-language school carved out of the jungle. When she was 12 her father fell ill, and the family fell on hard times. Her parents divorced, and Helen moved with her mom and brother to Libertyville, Ill. They were suddenly living hand-to-mouth in the conservative Chicago suburb, and the culture shock was jarring. “The cello was my escape,” she says. “It was my foundation.”
After graduating from Beloit College in Wisconsin, she couldn’t resist the siren song of New Orleans. She instantly felt at home — the air was alive with French, her native tongue, and the steamy climate reminded her of Singapore. Helen papered the city with flyers advertising her musical talents. She took any gig she could find, sometimes making as little as six bucks in tips. She survived thanks to the bulk foods gifted by her aunt, who worked for a company that supplied prisons. When she booked a wedding for the princely fee of $50, she celebrated with a salad and an avocado that she says “was better than the finest caviar.” She lived in unusual conditions, including an “artist’s colony” that was basically 20 kids squatting in a warehouse.
“I was barely making enough money to get by, but New Orleans was really good to me,” she says. “It was so inspiring to be surrounded by the endless creativity and wealth of talent. It’s such an open musical community; if you’re willing to make a fool of yourself, you can sit in with any band in town.” She learned to blend her classical training with elements of jazz, the blues and even punk rock.
In the summer of 2005 Helen made the long drive to Quebec to visit family, bringing along her cello and her cat, Lilly (named for Hurricane Lili, which they lived through a few months after arriving in New Orleans). While she was 1,500 miles away another hurricane hit. “Watching the Katrina coverage on TV, the emotions were so powerful,” she says. “That was my city.”
It took her three months to make it home. Even then she was among the small number of women living in a city populated by cops, soldiers and construction workers. The 6 p.m. curfew was still in effect, so Helen and two other female musicians spent their days playing on the streets of the French Quarter, bringing a little beauty back to New Orleans. “Best tips I ever made,” she says with a laugh.
She was holed up in a foul-smelling apartment when she spied a flyer for a subsidized community that was sprouting in the Upper Ninth Ward. It was called Musicians’ Village, and the 72 houses were reserved for working artists. Two of them were being built with money donated by Phil Mickelson. In the days after Katrina he had contributed $250,000 to relief efforts and pledged all of his winnings from the 2006 Zurich Classic of New Orleans, which inspired a number of players to do the same. Mickelson was disappointed to finish 15th and earn “only” $81,720, so he rounded the number to a quarter mil. (He would contribute another $250,000 in 2007.) The day after the ’06 tournament, Phil and Amy spent nine hours examining Katrina’s impact. “They wanted to see the damage and understand how they could help,” says Tommy Fonseca, a tournament staffer who drove the Mickeslons around town. “They were deeply moved. I remember Amy breaking down three or four times.”
Helen was similarly overwhelmed when the walls were raised on her house. “I had moved so many times since I got here, it was incredibly meaningful to have my first home,” she says. As a down payment she had to put in 350 hours of sweat equity building her house and others in the neighborhood. She would often bring her cello to the job sites and play during breaks, to the accompaniment of the pounding of nails.
In November 2007 she moved into her 1,400-square-foot, three-bedroom house. The bamboo floors provide great acoustics, and in lieu of living room furniture she imported her grandmother’s baby grand piano. Among the neighborhood perks are a weekend drum circle and enough working artists that the block put out a compilation CD titled Musicians’ Village. One of Helen’s neighbors is New Orleans legend Smokey Johnson, who spent two decades as the drummer for Fats Domino. Johnson, 75, tools up and down the street in his wheelchair, always greeting Helen with “Hello, cello” and sending her off to gigs with, “Go get ’em, Killer.”
Her $75,000 mortgage is interest-free over 20 years, and with such inexpensive housing she was finally free to take fewer late-night gigs and move on to another challenge. “I had always dreamed of recording albums, but it was this little house that gave me the freedom to do it,” she says.
Her first album came out in 2009 as part of the quartet Wazozo; Newton Circus features covers of Paris bistro music with a zydeco twist, with Helen providing lovely vocals in French. In 2011, along with Doug Garrison and Tim Green, she released Running of the Bells, an awesomely eclectic album on which she played the cello, loop, octave distortion and vielle, a medieval fiddle. On April 23, at the Big Easy Music Awards, the album was honored under the all-encompassing category of Best Contemporary Jazz. Helen just finished recording an album of original compositions, with her evocative cello work complemented by electronic music and other pop elements. She sings in English and French. Still untitled, the album is set to be released in June. (Go to helengillet.com for details.)
Even as she’s on the verge of more mainstream success, Helen is forever seeking out new challenges. Last week, in one of her 12 gigs during Jazz Fest Season, Helen Gillet’s Wazozo Zorchestra, a seven-piece band, performed the sound track to Belgian avant-garde silent films from the 1930s, what counts as just another day at the office. “She’s a dream to play for because she has such interesting ideas,” says Wazozo tuba player Jon Gross. “I feel rejuvenated playing with Helen because she’s such a positive life force.”
“She has that classic New Orleans improv spirit,” says Gregory Good, Wazozo’s guitarist. “Anything goes, and that makes the music come alive.” He pays Helen the ultimate compliment, the kind of validation that has sustained her during a topsy-turvy decade in a city she has made her own: “She’s a true artist.”
THE SINGLE DAD
The darkness almost overcame Donte Locke. Day after day he sat in his apartment, the blinds drawn. The woman he loved was gone, into the arms of another man. If Donte was shattered now, it was because he had been abandoned before. He grew up in a rough part of Bakersfield, never really knowing his father, and that void lived in him like a sickness. “All I wanted to do was walk out the door and leave everything behind,” he says. But that would only keep the vicious cycle going, because he would be doing to his daughter, Kailea, and his son, Donte Jr., what had been done to him. When he separated with the kids’ mother in 2009, he became their primary caretaker. It took all he had to get them off to school so he could then disappear back into the darkness. “One day I was in my apartment, crying, yelling at God, asking him what to do,” Donte says. In that lowest moment, the answer became clear: His children were to be his salvation. “I made a covenant that I would live for them,” he says.
In devoting his life to his kids, Donte was finally able make peace with the ghost of his father. They had reconciled briefly in 2003, and his dad died four years later. “It was nice to finally connect with him, but I didn’t get to say all the things I needed to,” Donte says, his voice catching. Soon tears are streaming down his cheeks. “He impacted my life in so many ways through his absence. He made me the father I am because I was determined to give my kids the things I never had, and I don’t mean material things. I want to teach them how to love, how to feel good about themselves. I want them to know education is important, family is important, God is important. I want them to know I will always be there to protect them. I want them to know what it means to have a father who loves them.”
Donte, 32, whispers these things to his kids every night when he tucks them into bed in their small apartment in El Cajon, Calif. By 8 p.m. he is usually asleep himself because at 1:30 a.m. his alarm clock inexorably comes to life. Donte dresses in the dark and heads off to a 3 a.m. shift at Sycuan Casino, leaving behind a nanny who shares a bed with Kailea, eight. (Donte Jr., six, sleeps with his dad.) Donte works on the “drop team,” which collects money from the slot machines. If he hustles he can be back home by 8 a.m., allowing for a 20-minute catnap before he heads to class. He is taking courses at two colleges, working toward a degree in family counseling. “I feel it’s my calling to help others, but it comes with a lot of tension,” he says. “I want to better myself, but should I be going to school or should that time go to my kids?”
He already gives so much of himself to his children. Following his classes Donte drives to Rowan Elementary, where Kailea is in third grade and Donte Jr. the first. After he volunteered five days a week for more than a year, the school put him on the payroll. “Donte means so much to all of our kids,” says Jennifer French, a teacher at Rowan. “A lot of them come from disadvantaged backgrounds and don’t have positive male role models, so they just flock to Donte. He is so calm and patient and gentle with them. He has become a very important part of our family here.”
It should be no surprise that Donte is active in Rowan’s PTA. He also attends church at least twice a week and mentors teenagers in what he calls his “spare time.”
“A lot of us wonder how he can maintain this life, how he can keep going,” says longtime friend Michael Michaels. “But when you see his kids, you know.”
Kailea is a sweetheart with beautiful manners and an irresistible smile. Donte Jr. is a warm, gentle boy with a sly sense of humor. There is no furniture in their living room, and the kids have invented their own “video game,” drawing on a dry-erase board and using a pretend joystick. Two of their prized possessions are snazzy backpacks they picked out at Start Smart, an annual event that Phil Mickelson hosts for about 2,000 kids from lower-income school districts across San Diego County. Mickelson pays for buses to bring the children to a big-box store, and they can choose school supplies, a variety of clothing, two pairs of shoes and other goodies. At the end of the day Mickelson picks up the bill, which runs well into six figures. Donte went to Start Smart in August 2011 as a chaperone. He had never heard of Mickelson but was impressed with what he saw.
“Just watching Phil interact with the kids and parents, you can see he’s genuine,” Donte says. “You can see it’s from the heart. Because he doesn’t have to help people like us. All the stuff the kids got at Start Smart was a tremendous blessing. I had wanted to take them school shopping but, honestly, the finances weren’t there. They came home and laid out all the clothes and could not wait to wear them on the first day of school. It was great for their self-esteem. It made me feel good too, because I want my kids to have nice, new things. They deserve that.”
The life of this single dad remains a paycheck-to-paycheck struggle. It is the love of his children that keeps the darkness at bay. The other day Donte was brushing Kailea’s hair when she casually said, “You know, Dad, I’m glad you stayed in our life so we would know someone cares.” He was man enough to let her see his tears.