From Rough Beginnings to Rays of Hope: How Mentoring Changed Chelsi’s Story

Chelsi Drobnick could have been just another casualty of poverty and crime. 

“Looking back at everything that’s gone on, I should be dead,” Drobnick said. “There were decisions I decided to make that got me to break that chain.  But it wasn’t just me. It was the love that was poured into me throughout my journey.”

Drobnick’s story is just one example of how the United Way of 1000 Lakes supports local community organizations working collaboratively to change people’s lives.

A rough beginning

Drobnick’s mother struggled to make ends meet as a single parent. Poverty, substance abuse, and violence were a regular part of Drobnick’s life.

“Sometimes we were homeless,” Drobnick recalled. “Sometimes we lived with relatives. Sometimes we were outside living in tents. We ate out of cans. I knew something was wrong with this. My friends didn’t live like this.”

There was trouble at school. 

“I was teased and bullied a lot because of my family situation,” said Drobnick. “I missed a lot of school. I failed a lot of classes. I never had my homework done and I always tried to find reasons rather than telling them the truth. I was afraid I would be taken away again. I just wanted to be with my mom even though it wasn’t a good situation.”

Drobnick said, “I started lashing out. I was angry and fighting. I was the kid that parents didn’t want their kids to hang out with.”

Photograph by John Connelly

Rays of hope

Drobnick found refuge at one of the United Way’s partnering agencies, the Itasca YMCA Youth Center, where she spent hours every day.

“They would give me a little snack and sometimes that was my dinner,” said Drobnick. “Whenever I was there, the Y was my safe haven.”

She also connected with mentor Sandy Pollard through Bridges Kinship Mentoring, another organization supported in part by the United Way of 1000 Lakes.

“I would go to her house and see what a nurturing family and love should look like,” Drobnick said. “I starved so much for that because it was so far from my norm.

“She [Pollard] sowed love, support and kindness into me. She made me feel beautiful and important and that I was not a waste of time. She made me feel I was made for a greater future.”

Pollard said, “We mostly just hung out. She liked to listen to and play music, and we’re a musical family. We did things that were what I considered everyday life, but for her it wasn’t. I didn’t realize I had made that much of a difference.”

Pollard mentored Drobnick for nearly two years before they drifted apart. Drobnick moved to the Twin Cities to live with family. She struggled to stay out of trouble until she connected with a church youth group. She moved back to Grand Rapids, graduat-ing with a 3.0 GPA and even served as a peer mentor through Bridges Kinship Mentor-ing.

Drobnick would study youth ministry in the Twin Cities. She married, had 2 kids, and divorced before returning to Grand Rapids as a single mom. She landed a job working with kids back at the YMCA Youth Center, eventually becoming its coordinator.

“She has overcome a lot,” said Betsy McBride, executive director of the Itasca YMCA.  “I am so proud of her. She was a troubled child who turned into a nice young woman.  She will say it’s because of her role models and because she had a safe place to be, but some of it is her. Her life could have gone such a different way.”

Deb DeMuth, executive director of Bridges Kinship Mentoring, said Drobnick’s story is what their organization is all about.

“Studies show that when you have a caring adult in a child’s life that will mean more success later, “ said DeMuth. “One person has the power and potential to mold and raise up a child to be uniquely who they’re meant to be.”

Drobnick now strives to set a good example for the kids in second through 9th grade who come to the youth center.

“I have some insight into what they are going through,” Drobnick said. “I don’t have all the answers, but I can listen, and sometimes that’s all they need. My job is to plant the seeds of kindness, patience and love. Those are the seeds that were planted in me all those years ago that have blossomed.”

Today the Itasca YMCA Youth Center sees more than two dozen kids every day.  Bridges Kinship Mentoring helps hundreds of kids each year. Drobnick says United Way of 1000 Lakes makes a big difference for these organizations.

“The United Way doesn’t just support these organizations financially,” said Drobnick.  “They support them with their hearts. It encourages me so much to see programs like this out there that can make a difference to these kids. It means everything.”

The United Way of 1,000 Lakes provides funding for several organizations that support the Itasca County region’s young people, including Deer River Boys and Girls Club, Campus Life, and YMCA Youth Center programs.