Tim Massaquoi, the new director of YSI’s Youth Emergency Shelter (YES), could probably get the attention of the homeless and runaway teenagers who come to the shelter simply by dropping the fact that he’s a former NFL player. But he prefers to take the less glamorous route instead—trying to relate to the kids through the positive behaviors he learned from sports.
“The lessons I learned from sports shaped my journey through life—the importance of practicing, consistency, goal setting, hard work, and doing the right thing. Those are transferable from sports to anything in life and that’s what I want these kids to understand,” said Tim, who played football at the University of Michigan and went on to serve as a tight end for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills from 2006-2009 before he was permanently sidelined due to an injury.
Tim learned early on that he had the ability to connect with kids. When he was 16, he mentored an 8-year-old boy with anger issues and a history of abuse and trauma. “He was very cold and didn’t expect much but I kept showing up consistently week after week. He began opening up to me and after awhile his principal reported less fights and acting out in class. The principal thought the behavioral improvement was due to our relationship,” Tim said. “That was my first experience of seeing the importance of a positive presence in someone’s life.”
After he left the NFL, he went into sales and then served as a case worker for teens and young adults transitioning from the child welfare system to independence. He then decided to get his master’s of psychology in clinical counseling from Eastern University.
“I have always had an ability to connect with people and show empathy even before I knew what it meant to really be empathetic,” he said. “I tried sales and other career paths but found counseling to be the area I excelled at the most and felt the most joy with, not only working with youth but people in general. So I knew this kind of work was my calling and purpose.”
The youths who arrive at YES often come from tough environments where they missed safe and secure developmental stages in their early years and may have behavioral issues that surfaced later. Others have different issues. How do Tim and the YES staff get through to them?
“Many need consistent support and context for helping things make sense. They need coaching and step-by-step guidance—for instance, to get their ID, they need money, they need to know where to go and what time it’s open, and they need to know how to get there,” he said.
Goal-setting is important. Through one-on-one counseling and group sessions, the YES staff works with the 12-17-year-old teens to create goals and plans. “We try to motivate them to aspire to better things,” Tim said.
The work at YES goes further. The staff works with local schools to get the teens enrolled. An academic instructor comes on site to fill some of the gaps. They also get help with basic life skills.
“The biggest thing we want to do is instill a caring relationship,” Tim said. Many of the kids are so sad when they leave here because it may have been one of the few places where they’ve had a positive relationship with an adult.”
Tim’s experience in working with youth who have experienced emotional traumas has strengthened YES’s program, said Gwen Bailey, executive director of Youth Service. “Tim brings us a new energy and perspective, and an ability to see possibilities. His experience with team sports has proven to be an asset as he builds a culture of winning.”