For many boys who have walked through the doors of Turlock’s Excell Center, “father” can be a word that has little to no meaning – a faceless term shrouded in doubt, only to be brought to the surface once a year during an annual holiday celebrated by those who have a dad. Chris Essary has encountered thousands of young boys and men through his work at the center, bringing value to the term once again and serving as a leader, a mentor, a friend and, most importantly, a father figure.
Since beginning his career in residential care 30 years ago, Essary has watched Excell’s grow from an all-boys ranch when it was founded in 1987, to the short-term residential treatment program it is today. The center, which is a program of human services agency Aspiranet, provides boys in foster care ages 10-19 individual treatment plans with goals for academics, social and behavior progress. The center is staffed with professional child care workers who act as surrogate parents.
“You don’t get rich in this line of work,” said Essary, who served as a house parent before working in administration with the organization. “The payoff is kids reaching out to you and saying, ‘Hey, you’ve had an important role in my life and you changed me for the better.”
During his time as a house parent, Essary’s positive, nurturing approach helped him to build lasting relationships with the young men he met, forming friendships through adventures like hiking and trips to Disneyland. He even took one group on a biking trip to Oregon, dodging lumber trucks and trekking hundreds of miles per day.
“They were great adventures,” said Essary. “We built these really, really remarkable friendships.”
While Essary served as a mentor for many boys and young men while they were a part of the Excell Center, his relationships didn’t end once they left. Thanks to the Internet, many have reached out to him in the years since. Some are as old as 40 with families of their own, who look back on their memories with Essary as some of the most impactful moments of their lives.
“I hope I’m someone that they remember cared about them when they needed someone in their life to care about them,” said Essary. “They’ve told me that they try to parent their kids in the way they learned from me, and say that they hope they can make me proud.”
Essary’s work with young men at the center inspired him to adopt a foster child of his own – his son Jenson, who he has raised from the age of six. Jenson, now 23, recently welcomed the birth of a daughter and will celebrate his first Father’s Day on Sunday. It will be Essary’s first as a grandfather.
“I’ve learned a lot along the way,” said Essary. “It’s disappointing that no matter how hard you work and no matter how hard you try, we’re not always accepted by the community. These foster children are wonderful kids when you get to know them, and I would hope people can come to know us, see the program and learn about the kids.”
While many have told him he has served as a father figure in their lives, Essary believes that no one but a child’s own father can fill the void left by an absent parent.
“I think we can be there for them and try to pick them up when they’re feeling down. We try our best, but the loss of a parent and grieving a parent…too frequently these kids are disappointed,” said Essary. “I encourage all fathers to be engaged as much as they can and know just how important that is.”