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Lessons in integrity: Chief Shepherd leaves lasting impression on students


The word resonates through the classroom, a point of topic and pride the students seem familiar with, as Chief Steve Shepherd, both at ease and in command, reminds them no one can take it from them.

“The only way you can lose your integrity is if you give it away,” Shepherd said, facing the class.

After more than six years of shaping youth through his position as Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps instructor at Excelsior Springs Job Corps, Shepherd plans to leave. He accepted a promotion to Program Director, a move that will take him from Missouri to another Job Corps campus in Wisconsin.

As the students spoke of Shepherd, a picture of a man for whom “integrity” proves to be more than just a word spoken from the front of a classroom emerged. With Shepherd, whom the kids call “Chief” with a mixture of respect and affection, the students said they felt listened to. This resulted in them learning to respect themselves. They also learned what it is to trust someone, and be trusted in turn.

CHIEF STEVE SHEPHERD stands with some of his students. Front: Jordan Burns, Mariah Basinger, Shepherd, Colin Stoltz and Stetson Marinaro. Back: Joycelyn Stromberg, Brooklynn Bungerhawk, Aaron Blaskey, Levi Herrick and Laquiwan Long.

“I never had someone growing up that I could trust, but he immediately set me at ease. He has completely earned my trust and respect,” said student Brooklynn Bungerhawk.

Corrections and connections

Several of them spoke about Shepherd’s ability to connect and correct, without condescension. They spoke of his ability to instruct with more than just lectures and lessons lifted from books.

“He’ll never tell you ‘you’re wrong,’ but he will show you there’s a better way to accomplish your task,” said Stetson Marinaro.

After once facing an issue with Shepherd, Jordan Burns said they were both able to work through it. Burns said the relationship never felt damaged despite the initial challenge. Levi Herrick called Shepherd an amazing leader, adding Shepherd treated his students like people. He said he praised Shepherd for the connections he helped his students make, both between them and the community and between each other. Colin Stoltz agreed and said, before meeting Shepherd, he lacked discipline, and often picked fights. Shepherd showed him he had potential. Because of Shepherd, Stoltz said, he became what he is today.

For Laquiwan Long, Shepherd represents strength, truth and backbone. Shepherd always maintained a steady presence for him, and others, Long said. He said even if students don’t need him, Shepherd remains.

Grow into what you are destined to be

Shepherd said his ability to connect with his students comes from his own background. As a child, his family did not have much money, he said. But he joined the Navy and found the playing field leveled. Suddenly, he was no longer the poor kid—everyone made the same rank of pay. He was no longer the kid who wore the same clothes day in and day out—everyone had a uniform. He committed himself to service and rose through the ranks. He spent over twenty years in the Navy and retired as Chief.

He said the Navy acted as his own Job Corps. Being in Job Corps, like being in the service, allows people to cast off preconceptions and “grow into what you are destined to be,” Shepherd said.

After the Navy, Shepherd tried his hand at sales but found himself needing to do more. He began to teach, first at a high school in inner-city Baltimore, then later, in Excelsior Springs.

Shepherd’s own backstory inspired him to learn the backstories of his students. Doing so gives him a better understanding of where they come from, and who they are—but it does not define whom they can become, he said.

Opportunity for rebirth

An unassuming box on a shelf in his office shows this lesson to be most evident. The students place letters they have written to their five-year-old selves. Shepherd said he only reads the letters if the students want him to. He said he feels the letter’s importance lies in being written, whether they get read or not. Writing a letter to themselves as a child creates an opportunity for his students to confront their past—and to tell themselves they survived, they made it and everything will be fine. Doing so helps them to move beyond their past.

“I try to build their value as people. I tell them, when they get here, that the beautiful thing about being here is this: I don’t care what you were before,” Shepherd said. “I don’t care if you were known as the dumb kid, the ugly kid, the fat kid, the poor kid, the dirty kid, the whatever kid—it’s just gone. You are here. You have the opportunity for rebirth. You can be whoever or whatever you want to, and it’s amazing when you see the transformation.”

Shepherd said his kids surprise him in a good way every day. And although his new position comes with more administrative responsibilities, he plans to keep students as his central focus. He said he thanked Excelsior Springs and the local Job Corps for the opportunity and time spent here.

The program will lose something special when Shepherd leaves, Bungerhawk said, and although the other students agreed, one spoke up in a way that showed those lessons in integrity and leadership from Shepherd worked.

“It’s not Chief that makes JROTC, it’s us,” Hon said.

By Samantha Kilgore •

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