Clackamas County's unlikely knight
Shanne Sowards never imagined himself as a youth mentor.
The 43-year-old Milwaukie resident didn't grow up thinking he'd be a counselor and confidant to teenagers, nor did he pursue some fancy degree in social work or psychology. In fact, Sowards only dream was to play football for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Nevertheless, eight years ago Sowards found himself in a position uniquely fitted to helping Clackamas County and Portland teens navigate tough situations. Sowards is the founder and executive director of Squires PDX, a Milwaukie-based nonprofit organization aimed at providing a support network and mentoring for teen dads. While there are dozens of programs aimed at helping and supporting teen mothers, Squires is unique in that it provides a space for young men to open up about their struggles and get connected to resources.
Before COVID-19 threw a wrench into everyone's 2020 plans, Sowards was hosting weekly "Squires Knights," where teen dads were invited to come have a bite to eat, talk with peers about anything on their mind, learn about resources that were available to them and simply take a moment to decompress. He would also meet one-on-one with new recruits and those yearning for extra engagement with Sowards.
Despite COVID-19, Sowards continues to connect virtually with many of the young dads he mentors in Portland and Clackamas County to continue helping them grow as young adults, fathers and partners.
To date, Squires has helped around 300 teens with a number of issues from finishing high school and seeking higher education, to paying child support and navigating Oregon's family court system. The group derives its name from the medieval term used for a knight's apprentice, much like how Sowards views the young men he strives to help.
Although the group was established in 2012, the story truly begins nearly 30 years ago when Sowards' own experience as a teen father provided the background and established the connections he has utilized to propel himself into a position to help others.
In 1992, Sowards became a father at the age of 15.
Just a year later, Sowards left his parents' house and became homeless. He was also no longer with the mother of his daughter, Kendra.
As a junior at Milwaukie High School, he struggled to work to pay child support and find a stable living situation, all the while trying to finish school and continue his passion for playing football.
"It was hard, but I've always had this 'one foot in front of the other' mentality," he said. "I didn't want to be like my parents, so when I left and became homeless, I had a job, I had money and could pay someone to sleep on their couch. So that's what I did."
Oftentimes Sowards' living situation wasn't conducive to being able to take part-time custody of his daughter.
During his senior year, a call went out to his teammates on the Mustangs football team to see if anyone had a spare bedroom he might be able to crash in, and a family familiar with his situation opened their home to him. He moved into a trailer the family kept in their backyard until the weather proved too cold for the little space heater he used to keep the trailer warm.
"I actually ended up moving inside the house and had my own room. It was also a safe place, so they were OK with me bringing my daughter over, and I started taking her every other weekend," Sowards said. "That was pretty impactful."
Around the same time, a high school counselor reached out to Sowards and asked if he'd be willing to meet with a man named Ben Root, an employee of the Inn Home for Boys — a nonprofit shelter for at-risk young men in Southeast Portland, right on the border between Multnomah and Clackamas counties.
At the time, Root had just received a grant to begin mentoring homeless youth, and he was interested in meeting Sowards to talk, hear his story and see if he might be able to provide some assistance.
According to Sowards, he was reluctant at first to meet with a stranger, but ultimately figured it couldn't hurt to let Root buy him a soda and listen to what he had to say.
But the relationship took a turn that Sowards didn't expect. Instead of listening to what Root had to say, Root wanted Sowards to do the talking, and Root listened.
"He started meeting with me once a week, buying me a soda and listening to me," Sowards said. "It was like the one adult in my life that was consistent. Not even about the guidance part; I didn't really look at it that way. He was just the one person that saw me."
Sowards experienced a huge lifelong impact from someone buying him a soda and listening to him. Root also helped in official capacities by helping connect him to resources such as registering with the state to begin tracking his child-support payments so that he was in the system and up to date rather than just paying cash to the mother of his child. Root also helped Sowards get on food stamps, and he began using his benefits to help provide food for the household that took him in.
It was those small things, according to Sowards, that helped him continue putting one foot in front of the other and becoming the self-reliant man he envisioned.
Squires is born
Nearly two decades later, Sowards was stuck in a sales job that was draining his energy and leaving him feeling unfulfilled. At the time his daughter Kendra was a sophomore in college at Portland State University and had recently moved out on her own. Kendra is now 28 and a graduate of PSU now seeking her master's degree in social work.
"I was reflecting on our relationship, and I just knew that I wanted it to be better than it was. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't the closeness that I wanted," Sowards said.
With two other daughters at home and renewed commitment to be more present, Sowards decided to take a job at a chemical plant that allowed him more time with his family, but he quickly found that job wasn't a great fit either.
In 2012, he recalls going to Bible study one Saturday morning to discuss John Eldridge's "Wild at Heart." Study group members began talking about what they might do for a career if all obstacles, hurdles and excuses were removed, and they were certain they'd have the means to take good care of their family.
"So I told them about this guy who used to buy me sodas, and how much of an impact that made on my life," Sowards said. "The next thing I know, this Bible study group was a business planning meeting. All of a sudden there was this flowchart looking at funding and all these things I needed to do to start my own mentoring business."
Sowards let his fellow study group members' imaginations run wild for about 20 minutes before he interrupted them. He'd just started a new job, he didn't have the time or capital to establish his own mentoring business, let alone he didn't know a thing about mentoring youth.
On his way home that day, Sowards remembers seeing a giant billboard along McLoughlin Boulevard with a picture of Grammy-award winning musician and producer David Foster with one giant word in red and white letters that said "Mentoring."
Arriving home that day, Sowards discussed his experience at Bible study with his wife, Elizabeth, who also encouraged him to take a proverbial leap of faith by trying his hand at counseling youth.
A few months passed and Sowards was laid off from his job at the chemical plant and forced to apply for unemployment. Shortly after, he received a call from the Oregon Employment Department about the Self Employment Assistance program that allows unemployment benefits for six months while starting a new small business.
All signs, figuratively and literally, were pointing to him becoming a youth mentor, so instead of fighting the feeling that he was being called to a higher purpose, Sowards decided to listen to the signs and dove in head first.
In that moment, Squires was born.
According to Sowards, his first outline of what the program would look like was much more rigid than what it's turned out to be. Over the years he's peeled back some of the initial program's guidelines to allow the discussions, bonding and guidance take place in a more natural environment, much like that of the relationship he built with Ben Root when he was 17.
"The most valuable thing that all these dads come back and say is that they're just thankful for having a friend," Sowards said. "It makes me really reflect, like, one time I was on stage doing a presentation about Ben, and I was explaining how he's the only guy who saw me like nobody else did."
Today, Sowards is passing that buck. He spends his time meeting with young dads and buying them sodas, listening to their life story and hearing their problems, and then dispensing knowledge based on his own lived experience and attempting to connect them with the resources he believes they could benefit from.
Kwame Assuman, 21, is one of those 300 or so "Squires" who have received guidance from Sowards program.
Assuman was 16 when his son King was born, and soon after a friend recommended Squires and he began attending meetings.
Much like Sowards with Root, Assuman was a little skeptical of this stranger who wanted to buy him a soda and hear about his life, but he decided to go anyway because he was interested in what Sowards might have to say.
Being one of the few African-American kids in the room added another layer of unease for Assuman, but he quickly found that Squires was the safe space he'd been lacking — a space in which he was free to express his struggles and frustration where he'd be seen and understood.
"I had jitters going in there not knowing who I'm going to meet or what's going to happen, but I loved it," Assuman said. "We got to talk about a lot of the problems and challenges we went through as teen dads in a confidential space."
It wasn't long before Assuman was attending meetings, not weekly, but regularly. He also gained invitations to outings set up by Sowards such as Saturday dinners and weekend camping trips.
According to Assuman, Squires gave him the confidence to ownership over some of the problems in his life and to find solutions to them. The regular meetings also helped him stay focused on his growth so that whenever life throws a curveball or he's feeling down, he doesn't get distracted from his goals.
"Shanne is just such a great leader, a great inspiration and role model," Assuman said. "My brother spent some time incarcerated, so I didn't have that. I was missing a role model, so he gave me that outlook of becoming a role model myself someday."
Assuman said that his experience with Squires has encouraged him to potentially take on the role of a mentor in the lives of others when he becomes a little bit older and is able to give more time and energy back into his community.
Danny Vasquez had a similar experience to Assuman's in receiving a confidence boost from his time spent with Squires.
Vasquez, 23, first met Sowards for a meal and a soda shortly after his son was born in September 2014. He was 17 at the time, and instead of meeting to talk about parenting and responsibilities, Sowards simply listened to his story and chatted with him about typical guy stuff like sports and other topics.
"I thought Shanne was really cool from the start, but later on I found him to be really helpful with a lot of things," Vasquez said.
According to Vasquez, Sowards is the type of guy who has a lot of answers to a lot of questions, but if he doesn't have the answer, he certainly knows somebody who does.
"And he'll never bring you to someone who he doesn't trust and know personally ," Vasquez said.
Sowards introduced Vasquez to a friend who could help him navigate the legal process as he fought for custody with the mother of his son. He helped Vasquez understand that he was best suited to give his child's mother full custody, but to remain involved in all medical and education decisions. That decision led him to gain weekend custody every other weekend and an overnight stay each Wednesday.
"That felt amazing," Vasquez said. "I got to talk to someone that has gone through this process themselves, and was able to help me. It made me feel so comfortable and confident as I was presenting in front of a judge."
According to 20-year-old Anthony Avila, the experience of getting to be around other people with similar experiences has been the best part of being involved with Squires.
Avila's first daughter Araceli was born in 2018 when he was a sophomore at Centennial High School before transferring to Milwaukie High School. Just a year later he and girlfriend welcomed their second daughter Adaliena into the world.
"I enjoy being around people who are the same as me, you know? Not just a friend who doesn't have a kid, but someone who really understands," Avila said. "We share some pretty deep stories."
Avila believes it's helpful for him to hear and see other people's struggles so that he can learn and grow from them before making his own mistakes. He's aiming to strengthen his relationship with his girlfriend and mother of his children in order to keep his family happy and healthy. He's currently finishing up his high school degree with plans to attend college in the future.
Avila said that Sowards helped him by pitching in to help pay for some of his graduation fees.
"I want to do something with my life," Avila said. "I haven't decided yet, but I'd like to to try and study something like sports broadcasting."
According to Avila, one of the biggest benefits of Squires is that while it is focused on being a support network for teen dads, there are aspects that help the entire family unit. Avila said that his girlfriend and two daughters have often participated in group activities where they get together with other families in the program to have a meal, play together and bond over their shared experience. It's those opportunities, Avila said, that he cherishes being able to celebrate his family unit and the friendships they've made through Squires.
Learn more about the program at SquiresPDX.org.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.