Honoring a Lifetime of Gratitude
By Brad McEwen
Even though he agreed to meet with me on his day off, it didn’t take long after we arrived at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Albany’s Thornton center—to discuss his long affiliation with the organization that is positively impacting the lives of so many of this community’s young people—for club CEO Marvin Laster to get pulled into helping a group of kids organize a pick-up basketball game.
“I’m always on,” Marvin explained to me a little while later. “I realize that. That’s the burden that I carry. But I’m willing to carry it.”
That Marvin is willing to carry the burden of not just representing the Boys & Girls Clubs of Albany as an organization, but tending to the needs of the estimated 3,200-plus children it serves each year, on a daily basis, comes as no surprise to anyone who has spent time with him and has seen firsthand the passion and excitement that is evident on his face when the conversation inevitably turns to the club and its mission.
“I am who I am and where I am today because of this organization,” Marvin said. “I owe a lifetime of debt and gratitude to it. And as long as I have breath in my body I will work, speak, strive and struggle to ensure that every kid in this community is afforded the same opportunities as me, because they deserve it. EVERY kid in this community deserves it.
“Every kid deserves a place where they can go, grow and thrive.”
Marvin’s unwavering belief that every kid deserves what the Boys & Girls Clubs of Albany has to offer is not surprising, given the nearly life-long connection he’s had since the son of a single mother first started going to the club’s Jefferson Street unit at the age of 8.
“I’m 8 years old and my mom is a single parent,” Marvin explained. “It’s funny how things work. She got a job at Sunnyland Farms and it was owned by the late Harry and Jane Willson, who were probably the largest benefactors of the Boys & Girls Clubs.
“Unfortunately a lot of people see us as a glorified daycare, not realizing the potential impact that it could really make in a kid’s life. Well, I started going to the Jefferson Street club at 8 and it was there that I really found my voice and found a place where I was accepted and learned things and where other people besides my family cared about me and supported me.”
While attending the club gave Marvin a place to go while his mother was at work, the decision to start going there and find a positive path for his life was also driven by the unfortunate things that had happened in his brother’s life.
“My mom was a single parent with two boys,” Marvin said. “I have an older brother that’s six years older than me. Unfortunately at the age of 9 he began to get in trouble with the law, so we really never spent our childhood together because he was in and out of group homes and juvenile facilities, correctional facilities.
“In fact, way before the current laws were on the books, my brother, at 16, was sent to prison. A juvenile court judge, Judge Phipps, just ruled that they had exhausted all of the resources in the juvenile court system and there was no other alternative but to send him to adult prison at 16.”
Despite feeling the pain of what happened to his brother, Marvin is humbled by it and sees that situation as an example of how God has worked in his life. And despite the inherent sadness that comes from seeing the things that happened in his brother’s life, he believes that his brother’s circumstances were a catalyst for the amazing things that have happened in his life.
“My brother, despite the things he’s gotten into, he’s always been my hero,” Marvin said with pride. “He’s very intelligent, but also, I almost feel like he sacrificed his life for me to learn what not to do.”
That Marvin credits his brother’s influence in helping him find his own path, was fitting, as the subject of mentors and people helping him along in his journey was huge part of our nearly hour and half discussion. Throughout our interview Marvin was keen to point all the individuals who have provided him with opportunities and protected him along the way.
And it was at the Boys & Girls Clubs where many of those mentors entered his life.
“When you went into the club, you were surrounded by people like the Belk brothers—Jason, Steve, Andrew, and the late Ray—who actually integrated the club in the early 70s,” Marvin said. “You run into people like a Rodney Wright or a Bob Hutchinson, or even a Tom Law or a Marshall Thomas and an old newspaper guy, Joe Gossett. These guys really took an interest in me and they have all been instrumental in getting me where I wanted to be.
“Marshall Thomas, who was in forestry here in Albany, he owns F&W, he really planted the seed in me that I could go to graduate school. I was at Albany State and about to graduate valedictorian of my department, but he arranged for me to go to the University of Florida and check out grad school. It was then that I realized not only that it was a possibility, but at some point it could be a reality for me.
“Although I didn’t take up forestry like he thought I should, I did follow in his footsteps and get an MBA from Mercer.”
Another of those Boys & Girls Clubs influences was also instrumental in connecting Marvin to other important people who he has formed relationships with and who have also become strong, positive influences in his life.
“When you look at Joe Gossett, at one point in my life I wanted to be in politics; I wanted to be a political analyst and so when I was named (Boys & Girls Clubs of Georgia) State Youth of the Year (in 1994), we had a press conference at the Jefferson Street club and he invited then State Senator Mark Taylor to the press conference. While the cameras were rolling I asked Mark for an internship and he accepted.
“Little did I know at that time that he was the administrative floor leader for the late Zell Miller. He took me under his wing and it was an election year and I had an opportunity to travel extensively with Zell. I always tell people we were on a first name basis; I called him Governor and he called me Marvin.
“In fact, I had the opportunity, when Zell was named to replace Senator (Paul) Coverdell, to work on his staff, which I ultimately turned down.
“And me and Mark forged a great relationship. During the flood I traveled with him. I remember they would send a state patrol helicopter to pick me up every morning and drop me off every night because I lived in East Albany and Mark was on the other side of the bridge. Mark really opened a lot of doors for me. He’s still one of my great friends and mentors.
“When he went on to become Lt. Governor, when he won that election and his opponent conceded, I was on stage with him and his family,” Marvin continued. “We had two victory parties that night, one in Albany and one in Atlanta and I flew with him and his family from Albany to Atlanta and was in the suite with him.
“I was a student at Albany State and I had class the next morning so he arranged to have me flown back to Albany so I wouldn’t miss class. Lo and behold, when I walked into class, I get a standing ovation because me and him had made the front page of the paper. I still have the article.
“But all that was made possible because Joe Gossett knew that I was interested in politics.”
Those positive influences early on also factored into Marvin attending college and staying in Albany to matriculate at Albany State.
“You look at the Dr. Bensons and the C.W. Grants, who were long-time board members for this organization,” Marvin said. “Nobody in my family had gone to college. My mother didn’t know anything about college. I remember at our 30th anniversary for this organization, Dr. Grant stood up in front of the room and he was Dean of Students at the time, and said, ‘Albany State is prepared to make that young man right there a Godfather offer—one he can’t refuse.’
“That’s how I ended up going to Albany State. Originally I had plans to go to Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan, but I ended up staying home because of the influence of Dr. Grant and Dr. Benson. And again, it’s that Boys & Girls Club connection.”
Marvin said the Boys & Girls Club connection also helped shape his professional future as the club’s leaders started presenting him with the career opportunities in high school that have allowed him to have a long and fruitful career with the organization.
“When I was 17 years-old I was named State Youth of the Year and the former Executive Director, Ed Deming, and the Director of Operations for this organization, (Bob Hutchinson), decided they wanted to give me a job working for the club. And not just a regular staff position. They made me responsible for all of the organization’s delinquency intervention programs and at the time, Boys & Girls Clubs of America only had 30 programs like that around the country.
“Consistently our program was ranked among the top 3. At 18 I was chosen to be what’s called a National Training Associate by the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, which meant they would periodically fly me around the country to train people in other Boys & Girls Clubs to try to replicate what we were doing in Albany.
“It was a huge leap of faith for Ed and Bob at the time. I’m not sure many people would turn over a $100,000 a year program to a 17 year-old high school student.
“I worked in that role for five and half years from the time I was a senior in high school until I graduated from college. But they allowed me to make mistakes and hone my skills. They saw something in me that no one else saw.”
The vision of those two men and their support and guidance early on not only allowed Marvin to be successful in that role, it ultimately proved to be a spring board for what came next—which was an impressive career at the national level of Boys & Girls Clubs of America, prior to returning to his hometown of Albany.
“I’ve been CEO (in Albany) since 2016, but I actually returned to Albany in January of 2015 and started as Assistant CEO,” he explained. “That was intentional. I had been away from the Albany community for a little over 10 and half years, and so on my return, the board, as well as me, thought it was important to give me a year to transition and re-acclimate myself to the community and get more familiar with current operations.
“I was in Atlanta working for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, which always was my ultimate career goal since I was 18 years-old,” he continued. “I always wanted to work on the national staff, and nine years after setting that goal, I actually realized it and had a great run.
“In fact, when I left I was managing the top program in all of the Boys & Girls Clubs, which is our National Youth of the Year program. It was a real joy for me. It really came full circle because I was Youth of the Year here in Albany and had the fortunate privilege of being named State Youth of the Year. “To manage that program was a God-send.”
Even though he had met one of his personal goals fairly quickly, Marvin said he had no designs on returning to Albany when he did. Although he had plans to return to the community at some point, he expected that to happen later in life.
But as is often the case, Marvin said God had a different plan for him—returning to the place where his path was set to help prepare a way for other young people from Albany to experience the incredible things he’s been blessed to experience.
“I always knew I’d come back to Albany,” he said with a smile. “But I always thought it would be at 58, never at 38. In fact, I’m in a role, quite frankly, as CEO, that I never wanted.
“God has different plans though and He’s led me back here. And around every corner he keeps blessing us.”
And many of those blessings, Marvin said, come in the form of strong community partnerships, which have always been the lifeblood of Boys & Girls Clubs of Albany’s success.
“He laid on my heart a plan to build an ecosystem of youth development,” he continued. “For us to affect the kind of change that we want to have in this community, it’s going to take all of us—the non-profits, the government agencies, the for-profit world, service organizations, every educational institutions—higher education and the public school system—pitching in and creating this environment where every kid can go, grow and thrive.
“That’s what we’re working on. That’s what we’re focused on.”
When asked to provide an example of some of those partnerships in action, and give me an update on the progress he believes has been made to develop those important relationships, Marvin had to go no further than the very building he and I were sitting in—the impressive, totally remodeled Thornton unit, which was formerly the Albany parks and rec department’s Thornton Gym.
“People give me way too much credit,” Marvin said matter-of-factly. “I often tell people I’m just a show pony. I have an amazing board of directors; I have an amazing staff, who are just as committed, if not more committed to this important work than I am. And we have amazing partners that are just as committed.
“Sitting here in this facility at Thornton, this came about not because of the great work that Marvin did, but actually because of something that happened in Tampa, Fla.”
According to Marvin, because the Boys & Girls Clubs is a “national brand,” people in other communities have developed a passion for its mission. In the case of the Thornton gym, a friend of Marvin’s, Boys & Girls Clubs of Tampa CEO Chris Letsos had laid the groundwork for a partnership between that organization and the local government. That partnership made its way to Albany with one of the architects of that connection, current Albany City Manager Sharon Subadan, who had worked with Letsos during her time as assistant county administrator in Tampa.
“That relationship was so great that when Sharon came here, I eventually got on her calendar to come and meet her and when I went into that meeting trying to pitch the Boys & Girls Clubs to her, she stopped me dead in my tracks,” Marvin explained. “She said, ‘Marvin, you don’t have to sell me on Boys & Girls Clubs. I’m already sold.’
“Then she said, ‘A few years ago there was a SPLOST referendum in which a pool was supposed to be built in East Albany. No one has moved on that and I’m going to make that a priority. I’m going to build a pool in East Albany. I would rather build it with you, but either way, I’m going to build it.’”
Ultimately Marvin got commitment from Subadan for the city to build the pool, remodel the Thornton gym and allow the clubs to use and operate them.
Additionally, Marvin got commitment from Subadan for the city to support renovations of the Jefferson Street Unit’s pool through a future SPLOST. All of which came about because of relationships.
“That one conversation, and what you’re sitting in today, is the edification of the right people being in the right place at the right time with the same vision—to better Albany and to provide a state-of-the-art facility to move this community forward.”
The notion of moving the community forward is vitally important to the native son and Marvin let it be known throughout our meeting that he is staunch in his belief that it can be moved forward in a positive direction, and that the community is already a better place than many give it credit for.
“I would say this, ‘It’s not who we are that’s holding us back, it’s who we think we’re not,” Marvin said. “You would be hard-pressed to find another city our size that has the resources that we have. Think about. There hasn’t been a Snickers bar ever produced where the peanuts weren’t roasted in Albany. The baseballs that are pitched in Major League Baseball, the thread comes from Albany, Georgia.
“If you use Charmin or Bounty, it comes from Albany. You need a heat wrap? It comes from Albany. If you drink beer, it comes from Albany. Sixty percent of all the equipment the Marines use in combat is right here in Albany. Not to mention all the famous people that have come from here.”
And some of those famous people, Marvin pointed out, have direct connections to the Boys & Girls Clubs.
“A lot of people don’t know this, but here’s a little tidbit for you,” Marvin said. “What do Deion Branch, Ricardo Lockette and Steve Largent all have in common? They all played wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks, but they all grew up in the Boys & Girls Clubs of Albany. They all grew up here.
“People don’t know that Alice Coachman Davis worked in our Jefferson Street facility as our art instructor. There’s a whole lot of history here that people just don’t know.”
By sharing some of that history and being visible in the community Marvin believes he can share the great things about this community and champion the great work being done the organization he cherishes, even if others can’t always see those things.
“My return to Albany hasn’t been without its challenges,” he said. “Even in my own family and in my own neighborhood sometimes I get accused of having forgotten. For all the great work that I do, people still question my motives. They still question my character. They still question my integrity.
“Some people think I’m visible in the community because I’m setting myself up for a bigger job. Some folks say I’ve forgotten where I come from and that I think I’m better than others.
“I’m no better than anyone else and I can never forget where I’ve come from because where I came shaped me into where I am today.
And although where he is today is exactly where he wants to be and he hasn’t forgotten where he came from, he’s quick to point out that his involvement in the Boys & Girls Clubs showed him early on that he wanted a better environment than the one he came from. In fact, showing kids like him that the world has so much more to offer than what they see in their neighborhoods is a hugely important element of what the clubs do in people’s lives.
“Even as a kid, I never wanted to stay there,” Marvin said of his world he was born into. “I never wanted to be there. When I was exposed to a bigger world, I wanted more. Unfortunately not everybody has had that level of exposure.”
“As a kid, my experiences at the Boys & Girls Clubs really opened my eyes to the world beyond what I knew at the time, beyond my neighborhood, beyond Albany. I always talk about the time someone donated some tickets to the club for several members to go to a Braves game. That was the first time I ever went to Atlanta. It was the first time I ever went to a Braves game or a professional sports game.”
That trip—which included getting a commemorative shirt from the team and meeting renowned Braves like Bob Horner, Zane Smith and Dale Murphy—had a profound impact on Marvin and turned out to be the first of many times the clubs exposed him to a broader world.
“That one trip really exposed me to a life bigger than what I knew at the time,” he said. “And I’ve had other instances where Boys & Girls Clubs has really broadened my horizon, really supported my dreams and exposed me to so much.
“I always talk about the three ‘Es’—education, experience and exposure. In my mind, the greatest of those three is exposure.”
Of course, as important as exposing kids to the broader world is, Marvin reiterated that the Boys & Girls Clubs is also a special place because of the people who volunteer their time there so they can make an impact in a child’s life—even if the children don’t always realize at the time what is being done for them.
Sometimes, Marvin said, that realization comes in difficult, but meaningful ways.
Interestingly, for all the success Marvin has had because of his involvement with the Boys & Girls Clubs, there was a brief period when he went astray and like many of the kids who come through the clubs, questioned if Boys & Girls Clubs had value for him.
“Here’s a little story very few people know about me,” Marvin said. “I was a fairly decent basketball player. In fact, I played in high school. I wasn’t always as disciplined as I am now and I ended up quitting my high school team because me and my coach didn’t see eye to eye on some things. I wanted to be a little bit grown and that kind of stuff.
“So I came to the club to play and I was fairly decent. I could dunk it any way you wanted to see it and people used to come to watch me play. Well there was an incident that I had in a game once where I dunked and I was taunting the other team’s players. Bob Hutchinson stopped the game and basically told me that behavior wasn’t becoming of a Boys & Girls Clubs member. He also made sure I was benched the rest of the night and I didn’t like that.
“In fact, I quit coming to the Boys & Girls Clubs. I started hanging out with some guys in my neighborhood who were doing some things I would be embarrassed to tell my pastor about.
“Well on December 3, 1993 the great guys of the Albany Police Department put a quick end to my little foray into a life of crime. I was arrested and ended up going to juvenile court.”
And because God works in wonderful ways, Marvin’s life took another interesting twist.
“Lo and behold, the judge sentenced me to that same delinquency program that I ended up managing almost a year later,” Marvin said. “It’s amazing man.
“I had this quick foray into it and never looked back. And it taught me some valuable lessons. I understand. I grew up in the hood. I grew up poor. I grew up with some guys, some of them are dead, some of them are in prison. One of my mentors to this day is a guy that’s serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. He still calls me and tells me how proud he is of me. I feel like a lot of people in my community sacrificed their lives to ensure that I would make it.
“It took me a while to see it, but when I saw it and when I saw the love and support that was given to me, not only at home, but through my club, I realized there was a bigger purpose for me and I could end up being a living testimony for so many others.”
I can certainly say that from the first time I met Marvin his purpose was obvious to me. There’s simply no denying that Marvin is a living testimony not only for the impact the Boys & Girls Clubs of Albany has on the community it serves.
I truly believe that in Marvin Laster we have an inspirational leader who can help transform Albany into the place he and I, and many others, know it can be.
Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - firstname.lastname@example.org - @BradGMcEwen