Children need love, especially when they do not deserve it. — Harold Hulbert, author
It was early in the 1960s when John McIlwee tried to make a living selling carpet-cleaning equipment. For thousands of confused, frightened, angry and abused kids from Denver to Colorado Springs, many of them not yet born, there could have been no better news than this: McIlwee was a lousy salesman.
McIlwee, 74, leaned forward in his chair the other day and dug into his breakfast, biscuits smothered in gravy. He smiled between chews. "That carpet thing, that didn't go so well," he said.
He had graduated from Western State College in Gunnison with a business degree and spent two years in the Navy — and now it was time to get rich, he figured. In Denver he worked at a mercantile, and later in Goodyear Tire's accounting department. He even sold coffee. The carpet thing was the final lousy straw.
"I had friends who worked in probation, and they talked about how they enjoyed what they were doing," he said. "I thought I'd give that a try."
He pestered Denver's director of youth parole for a job, trying every week or so. "I was persistent," McIlwee said. He got a position in juvenile parole services. It was 1965.
For 33 years, McIlwee sought to ease the burden for kids who seemed to have no place to go, no one who loved them and no hope that life would get better. He ran a detention center, became head of juvenile parole for Colorado's northern region and, in 1992, moved to Colorado Springs to oversee the southern region. He retired from youth corrections in 1998.
And then Urban Peak, a Denver-based youth services group, found him. He was appointed full-time executive director of the Colorado Springs program in 2002.
A few months ago, McIlwee retired from the nonprofit organization. During his tenure, it helped some 1,200 kids and young adults, getting them away from alcohol and drugs, off the streets, back to high school or into a GED program, into college and jobs. Kids who needed another chance.
Kids like Matt Grace. He left home, dropped out of school, smoked a lot of pot and finally got arrested when he wandered, drunk and stoned, into someone's garage. Guided by McIlwee and Urban Peak counselors, Grace began to find his way back. He got sober, enrolled at Pikes Peak Community College, and found a job.
"I have no idea, none at all really, how I could have made it without these people," Grace said in 2010, sitting in an office at Urban Peak's 20-bed facility in Colorado Springs.
Of the people in need who came through the doors under his watch, McIlwee figures Urban Peak sent about 60 percent of them back out in far better shape than when they arrived.
"We gave them a transitional housing program where they could come and stay and get food, clothing and health services, get help with school and jobs and substance abuse and mental health services," McIlwee said.
Urban Peak offered them something even bigger.
"What we really gave them," said McIlwee, his voice growing softer, "was a place where they were respected. We gave them love. We gave them hope. We gave them a dream of the future. We gave them a chance."
On April 20 at Stargazers Theatre and Events Center, not far from the downtown Urban Peak facility where he made such a difference, friends will gather to roast and toast McIlwee. (Go to urbanpeak.org or call 630-3223.)
The event will be filled with jokes and laughter and lots of stories — perhaps even the one about McIlwee's shamrock and smiley-face buttock tattoos. Although I hope no one brings that up.
There will be love in the room, too. And compassion. And as Urban Peak goes on with its mission, there will be the chance for better days for the kids who still wander our streets alone.