Today Donnell Gibson is an educator, coach, role model, hero, and creator of his own foundation designed to encourage and inspire inner-city youth.
Four years ago, the former St. Paul Johnson basketball star and 2004 graduate was focused on raising his three children and his job as a parks and recreation worker.
“I was totally focused on raising my family and my job, he said. “I didn’t think I would be doing anything else but that.”
That all changed on April 1, 2015.
On his way to work that morning, Gibson spotted a burning house on the city’s North End. Before firefighters arrived on the scene, he had saved the lives of three families.
After receiving numerous awards and the well-deserved recognition that comes with such heroism, Gibson felt inspired to contribute further to his community. “I wanted to do more,” he said. “I didn’t know what at the time, but I wanted to get something started.”
With that, he founded and created The Gibson Foundation, an organization that uses basketball to inspire youth to focus on leadership, respect, violence prevention and interventions.
The 4th Annual Gibson Foundation Hope Heals Basketball Camp — see details below — has been running since June and ends next month. Judging by the packed gymnasium at Washington Technology Magnet on a hot Wednesday evening, the camp is having a successful summer.
“We have 150 kids signed up,” volunteer Ronnie Smith said with enthusiasm.
Smith, a 1976 St. Paul Central graduate who also played for the Minutemen, was a successful youth basketball coach for three decades. He was persuaded to come out of retirement last year and hasn’t regretted it one bit.
“It’s good for our youth to come and just play,” the newly appointed assistant coach for St. Paul Como Park’s girls’ basketball team added. “If you notice, they [the camp participants] all get along, and most importantly they are having fun.”
Gibson Foundation Executive Director Kristy Pierce, a 1981 St. Paul Central graduate who serves as a cultural specialist at Como Park, supported Smith’s viewpoint and expanded on it.
“It’s a safe place,” she said. “They are in a space where they know adults care about them. When spaces are created with adults they know love them, they will show up.”
Gibson is a behavior intervention specialist at Como Park, where he will also coach the boys’ varsity team this winter. On this particular evening, as he finished a pick-up game with camp participants — where he displayed the point guard skills he used to lead Johnson to the Class 4A state tournament his senior year — Smith said he had something to show him.
Looking at Smith’s cellphone, both listened to a FaceTime message from a participant who left camp early to attend college. He expressed thanks for the inspiration and courage he received while attending the camp.
“That’s pretty cool,” Gibson said with a smile. “That’s what it’s all about.”
The 4th Annual Gibson Foundation Hope Heals Basketball Camp for boys and girls ages 13-19 runs Mondays and Wednesdays at Washington Technology Magnet, and for ages 9-12 at Arlington Recreation Center Tuesdays and Thursdays. The current camp will end on July 31; the next camp starts next week. For more information, call 651-399-3908 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Mitchell Palmer McDonald is a contributing columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.