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Giving Back: Volunteer is ‘lifeguard’ to those who are stuck

January 2, 2017

Nelson Greene enjoys giving back to our community by volunteering through United Way of Northeast Florida and its partners. Credit: Nancy Winckler-Zuniga

When he was 16, Nelson Greene took the job of being a lifeguard seriously. Sitting on the double tower next to a more experienced guard training him, he asked how he would know when someone was in danger.

He never forgot the answer he was given that day by his trainer: “If you’re waiting for someone to wave their arms at you, it’s too late.”

Greene has used it as a motto ever since, looking out for others before they’re drowning or stuck.

“Growing up in Deland, it was ingrained in us to do as much as we could,” Greene said. “It was always part of who we were.”

Double-teaming and learning from someone more experienced filled a void Greene was left with after losing an older brother. As Greene grew older, helping others find a mentor became a focal point of his life.

Through a United Way of Northeast Florida workplace campaign, Greene joined United Way’s young professionals group, Atlantic Circle, and eventually also participated in the nonprofit’s Stein Fellowship and Achievers For Life, a middle-school mentoring initiative in partnership with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northeast Florida.

Greene will joke that after finishing one project, he is always looking for what’s next. So, when he was approached to help coach college students with their United Way Upstream project, he was thrilled.

United Way’s annual Upstream competition allows college students the chance to develop ideas for social change with a Stein Fellow as their coach. These ideas are then presented to a panel of community leaders for the chance to win seed money to make their idea a reality.

“These guys are so focused, driven,” Greene said about his team. “It’s going to be great. They have this indistinguishable fire to help others. I get goosebumps just talking about it.”

Greene’s team is developing an idea to help male students understand what it means to be a man by teaching responsibility, fiscal literacy and conflict resolution.

“There are so many who need training in those soft skills,” Greene said. He knows from his own mentoring experiences.

As an Achievers For Life mentor, Greene spent hours with his first mentee trying to get him to open up.

“After eight months, he could look me dead in the eye and had a great handshake, but then he moved to a different school,” Greene said. “My next mentee was the opposite; he was jubilant at coming to spend that one hour a week with me.”

Greene saw the program was making a difference and was able to recruit two colleagues to also join Achievers For Life. The three would carpool together to Eugene Butler Middle School to meet with their mentees.

Whether it’s coaching college students or working one-on-one with a middle-schooler, Greene believes learning from each other is crucial to making Jacksonville a better place.

“Be proactive, help,” he said. “Learn from others as much as possible.”