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‘We were blessed’

John Nelson and his Kinship Partner Dustin were featured in a billboard campaign

Jeanne Sawvel was a single parent taking college courses and working to get off public assistance. 

At home, she had a young son abandoned by his father who she described as  silent, angry and withdrawn. Sawvel now wonders how different their lives may have been if not for Kinship Partners and John Nelson of Baxter. As her elder son Dan grew, her younger son Dustin also became Nelson’s Kinship Partner. 

“I don’t know if they would be the same people,” Sawvel said if not for the influence of Kinship Partners. “It was something we needed in our life we didn’t even know we needed. It was incredible. We were blessed.”

Sawvel said it’s hard to come up with the words to express how much of an impact Kinship Partners made in their lives. At the time she said as a mother she felt she could and should be able to juggle it all. Her sons are now in their 20s with good jobs and in good relationships. Sawvel is a child protection worker with Crow Wing County. 

Dan had to be convinced to give Kinship a try and his first mentor decided it wasn’t going to work after a single outing. Dan had been waiting to be matched with a mentor for more than a year. Then Nelson stepped in. The first day they met included a foot race down the sidewalk. In an interview for the Initiative Foundation, Dan said Nelson won him over quickly.

“I was so excited, but I wasn’t gonna tell anybody that,” Dan said.

They went snowmobiling, inline skating, skateboarding, fishing and camping. They went to Twins and Vikings games, rode minibikes and played hours of Frisbee golf in northeast Brainerd at Lum Park, a course their Kinship connection was instrumental in creating.

Nelson said his desire to be a Kinship Partner was rooted in his own childhood in White Bear Lake. Minnesota Vikings famed offensive lineman Ron Yary was the adult mentor for one of Nelson’s childhood friends through the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program. Yary spent time in their neighborhood and was a presence watching them play football because his “little brother” was on the team. 

Watching that experience prompted Nelson to vow even as a kid himself to be part of that mentoring program when he became an adult. He’s mentored eight kids and now has two of his own children.

“I just think it’s just so important the kids have a positive role model in their lives,” Nelson said. 

He said people are afraid they won’t have the time to be a Kinship Partner. But Nelson said he simply involved Dan in whatever he was doing. Sometimes that meant taking Dan to meetings like Sertoma or the Mid-Minnesota Builders Association. They worked on homework and Nelson stressed the importance of an education and good grades. Sometimes, Nelson said, Dan and later Dustin, just wanted someone to listen. Dan and Dustin helped with projects at Nelson’s garage door company. 

“All this guy stuff,” she said, noting things like vehicle repair skills. “I couldn’t have done any of that.”

Sawvel said her sons use skills they gained from Nelson, including the ability to mentor, in everyday life. 

“It’s been an unbelievable relationship with both of them,” Nelson said. “I believe in the program; I highly recommend people giving it a try. Make a difference in a young person’s life and you’ll find it’s a win-win. It’s been nothing but rewarding and good times.”

Casey Stengle, Brainerd, was involved for years in Kinship Partners with boys in single parent homes because of a divorce or fathers who are not involved in their lives. 

“It’s one of the best things I did,” Stengle said of volunteering efforts. He’s worked with kids who have had an uphill struggle from an early age because of their family situations. But Stengle said the effort was worthwhile. Now he’s been a resource for other Kinship mentors and he said Kinship provides support for the volunteers. 

Stengle said he cringes when he sees the waiting list of boys who want mentors. He added a lot can be done by showing a child there are other futures available to them with jobs and opportunities. Changing the trajectory of one life that may otherwise fall victim to expectations they won’t make anything of themselves can have far-reaching effects. 

“I just think it’s one of the best things we are doing with kids that are left with either one parent or no parent,” Stengle said. “There are very few things I have more regard for.”

RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at or 855-5852.