Don’t panic. We tend to feel like all is lost and that we need to shut down in order to digest what has happened and take a pause so we can get out of our emotional mindset. When we are in fight-or-flight mode, our logical, thinking process shut down.
Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Danny Vann.
Danny Vann is a former foster & trauma survivor. His story begins with a violent broken home-onto kinship care (relatives)-to-orphanage-to-foster home-back to a reunified alcoholic blended family & emancipation at 17…where he overcame all odds, graduated high school with honors, completed college and became a success manager in Information Technology — and a Professional Entertainer performing in front of tens of thousands of people. He has been inspiring and motivating people for decades through his professional music, corporate leadership and church fellowship roles. He is the founder and director of “Aging Out Academy” — where the journey from CHAOS to HOPE takes a huge leap forward. Danny was presented the “2022 Citizen for Change Award” from Westchester County, New York — nominated by Foster Kids Unite, Inc.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
Absolutely! Thanks for including me in your series. Having come from a violent broken home environment thru the kinship care and foster care programs — to reunification with additional physical and verbal abuse, I emancipated out at 17 to follow my passion for music and never went back. I only spent one year at my final high school, and still managed to graduate on the National Honor Society, perform the leading role in our high school play, “Bull in a China Shop,” and even wrote and performed an original song in music theory class for the entire school assembly. By that time, I had moved 15 times before finally graduating high school. I immediately moved 200 miles away at 18 years old in order to follow my passion for music and fulfill my dream to become a professional entertainer. I went on to overcome all the odds and completed a 45-year career in music as well as complete a college degree and excel in corporate America as an Information Technology manager and Senior Project Manager in computers — all while raising a family — through two divorces, open heart surgery at 45, and a heart attack at 59: I’ve also had 12-heart catheterizations to date.
Now, after being disabled following the heart attack in 2013, I have written two books and founded the Aging Out Academy — all in order to help educate and encourage those struggling within the child welfare system today or struggling because of past trauma. My life’s motto is “Life is a journey, and this is just the next stop.”… “Never-ever-NEVER give up”
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
After 21 years working for the phone company in Michigan, I was down-sized and “let go”. My pension was recalculated, and I received only a fraction of what had been contributed — they called it the “vested” amount. So, at 40+ years old I was served a bitter pill from the corporate world. I decided to become a full-time entertainer since my kids were in high school and my divorce had just been finalized. After about a year and a half of struggling to replace my income, Y2K came on the scene like a raging bull. Everyone was panicking about their computers and what might happen to their companies. It turned out that my computer skills from the phone company were now in HIGH DEMAND. I decided to re-enter the corporate business world as a consultant. Within 6 months I was making 1 1/2 times as much money as I had been paid in my 21-year job. It was all a blessing in disguise. My anger and resentment in dealing with the corporate sharks was converted into an opportunity to improve my lifestyle and leverage my knowledge and skills to MY advantage because I allowed some recruiters with more knowledge of the system to teach me some new ways of looking at things. I was also reading “The Magic of Thinking Big” at the time this transition happened. I had given up hope in trusting corporate management, but in the end I was able to persevere and turn the situation around. I learned that sometimes it’s okay to “take a break” — but that I should never give up trying to make things better.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The Aging Out Academy is unique because I have captured my own lived experiences as well as my lifetime of business and entertainment experiences and present them via short videos in a very simple language and format that anyone can relate to. I have also researched “current” solutions and support programs through the Internet and brought them all together in a subject-driven education, resource, and encouragement system. I use both written and video teaching methods. By applying simple methods of showing students how to do their own research and then take action on many subjects, both young and old children in foster care, or adopted, as well as former fosters can become more successful and independent.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Yes, of course. My most recent mentor is Dr. John DeGarmo, founder and director of The Foster Care Institute. While he does not have “lived experience” as a recipient of foster care, he has fostered over 60 youth in his home — and has adopted 3 into his permanent family! He is very active in the Child Reform movement and advocates for higher community involvement in the human trafficking tragedy affecting so many children in and out of the Child Welfare/Foster Care System. Dr. John has taught me some incredible lessons on focusing my own lived experiences in a way that I can reach & teach Foster Parents, Agencies, CASAs, PALs, and other Advocates. He has also helped introduce me to many of those organizations as well as youth and adults formerly in the system.
As a result of Dr. John’s tutoring, I have spoken on many podcasts and presented at many Virtual Conferences and Webinars. I have become a mentor to a young man who is continuing to struggle in his life even after aging out of the system over 10 years ago. My relationship with Dr. John and all the opportunities he has opened up to me has been life-changing for me as well as those receiving my instructions for them! In May 2022, I was presented with the “Citizen for Change Award” from Foster Kids Unite, Inc. in New York, by the Westchester County Executive! This would not have been possible without the support and encouragement of Dr. John DeGarmo (and my wife Lena).
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience?
To me, resilience is pushing through a difficult situation and finding a way to survive, to overcome and ultimately learn from it in order to make one stronger. People DON’T LIKE CHANGE!
Yet, the very nature of life is change. People long for the familiar: the constant. Yet, the only thing constant in life is CHANGE! We welcome changes in a baby’s life — but we dread new things that come up in our own lives. The way we cope with change and the struggles in life help build our character, our personality, and our resilience.
Resilience is built one change at a time and one struggle at a time. Even if we become overwhelmed when faced with the storms of life, change drives us to become more than we were. In the long run, when we face it and overcome it, change and challenges help us grow. Growth is the fruit of resilience.
What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
Resilient people are strong-willed. They are not quitters. Resilient people keep getting up when knocked down. They are innovative. They persevere and keep looking for solutions. Sometimes they even go an entirely different route — but they keep pushing toward their goal!
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience? Courage is the ability to overcome something no matter how much fear or circumstances tell you to run the other way! Resilience is a long-term withstanding of something — overcoming odds — and finding a way to succeed in the long run. Resilience is that process of “knowing” that you can make it through! It is “believing against all odds” that something will happen despite everything going on around you. It can take great courage to push through terrifying circumstances but being courageous doesn’t make you resilient.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
While preparing for this interview, my youngest brother, Robert J. VanPelt died unexpectedly of cardiac arrest. It was a shock to us all. He was the closest of my 5 younger siblings. We had a lot in common — he was one of the most resilient people I know because, not only did he overcome all the trauma and chaos of our childhood, he excelled in and through stress, health issues, and chaos in his adult life and his corporate career. He did not give in to self-pity or bullying from anyone. He stood up for himself — his family — and even stood up against several bosses in his work settings. He lost a few jobs along the way, but always seemed to come out on top with a new, even better position than he had left. He was only one year away from retirement and three days before his death, we talked about his future dreams and hopes. He loved his kids and grandkids and spent time with them tirelessly. He broke the cycle of chaos, abuse and alcoholism — and left a legacy of strong family bonds, successful business leadership and support of his coworkers. He demonstrated a lifetime of resilience by his actions in life!
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway?
Yes. Many times. Can you share the story with us? I’ll share my most recent one, you can read about others in my memoir — “My Journey in the Shadow of “The King” on Amazon. After my heart attack in 2013, my cardiologist told me both of my careers (Corporate Project Manager & Professional Entertainer) were over! Completely finished! With no chance of returning. I had lost 1/3 of my heart function and my arteries were (and still are) a disaster. (Thanks for great genes Dad & Grandma) The doctor said if I tried to go back to work “I would die” — he said my body cannot take the stress anymore.
I sat on my living room sofa for a year and a half healing and lamenting this devastating news. “What was I going to do with my life now?
I can no longer do the things I love and that I am good at.”
I was only 59 years old when all this happened. I cried out to God — “What am I supposed to do with the rest of my life? Why did You spare me?”
Realize that my life had been running at 200 miles per hour since I was 17 and emancipated out of foster care and moved out on my own 100 miles from my hometown. At one time I held down “3” fulltime jobs (including voluntary work for special needs children).
As I pondered my situation, a voice kept prodding me — “tell your story.” I was reminded of the benefit concerts I had performed 10 years earlier for a Boys Group Home and the director’s words to me, “Danny, you are such an encouragement to the boys, the counselors and our whole organization. It’s inspiring to know that someone that was in a home just like this has been able to achieve the things you have done.” — Then he said it: “YOUR STORY NEEDS TO BE TOLD.” So, I talked it over with my loving and supportive wife, Lena, and I decided to write a book about my story. About 2 1/2 years later, on my birthday, “My Journey in the Shadow of “The King” was published on Amazon.
Since then, I have been tutored by Dr. John DeGarmo of the Foster Care Institute and have gone on to set up connections (from my home) on various social network sites where I am reaching thousands of people with #Encourgement and educating other traumatized individuals (and their advocates) on resources to help them through their trial from CHAOS to HOPE!
What looked like an impossible and hopeless situation for the rest of my life has blossomed into an inspirational and encouraging ministry to help others.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Absolutely. Can you share that story with us?
After 21 1/2 years working at the phone company here in Michigan, I was suddenly downsized and found myself jobless. This was right after my divorce was finalized. I was devastated — and extremely angry with Corporate America. Until that decade, most people worked their entire career in one company and retired out at 30 years of service.
As a result of this new development, I received only a fraction of my pension — due to regulations (it was a way for businesses to increase profit margins). I took my small payout and started a putt-putt golf business. It flopped. After about a year and a half, the Y2K panic set in and my expertise in computers made me worth my weight in gold. So, I went back into the corporate business world as a “consultant” — because I did not trust them anymore. After just six months, I landed a second job paying me almost DOUBLE what I was making after 20 years at Ma Bell. It was helpful that I was reading the book, “The Magic of Thinking Big” at the time. It gave me both inspiration and courage to ask for the bigger salary!
How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life?
I learned early in life that if you can think it, you can do it. You just have to keep trying until you make it. I am not one to give up! Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Growing up in chaos and striking out on my own at 17 without any healing, family support or counseling, I had many tough experiences that helped me learn to cope, survive, and thrive! Can you share a story? In 1998, about 15 years before my heart attack, I was just 45 years old, we lost my dad to an unexpected cardiac arrest (just like my brother Bob) Three months later, I failed a cardiac stress test and wound up having open heart surgery. I received a double bypass and was told to rest and heal for at least six weeks. It turned out that my new consulting company had very poor short-term medical insurance and my pay was cut by 90%. I had many medical bills, a house payment and many other bills — so I HAD to get back to work within 3 weeks or I was going to be financially devastated!
After just 3 weeks, I began driving myself to work 40 miles from my home, but after the first week I had to stop due to severe fatigue and I wound up finding another job. It was a very stressful and trying time — but, I had to survive so I just kept moving along. I got a new job, closer to home and for even more pay! To me, this is an example of resilience.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
That’s a great question. Here are the steps that I use when faced with life’s hurdles and challenges:
- Don’t panic. We tend to feel like all is lost and that we need to shut down in order to digest what has happened and take a pause so we can get out of our emotional mindset. When we are in fight-or-flight mode, our logical, thinking process shut down.
- Take time to consider all the possibilities to resolve the issue. Seek help if needed.
- Make a plan for resolving or solving the issue.
- Implement a solution — if it fails, reconsider, make a new plan and implement again until you achieve your goals.
- Take the attitude of “Never-ever — — NEVER Give up.” Keep trying until you succeed. True resilience is pursuing the goal until it is achieved — or modified until your gain the success you require.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Thanks for asking: In my research I have discovered that there are between 12 million -13 million adults in the USA that have suffered early childhood trauma and/or have been involved with the Child Welfare System. Recent studies suggest their symptoms are up to 3–4 times as intense as the PTSD experienced by our soldiers returning from war.
Currently, children who are physically or mentally abused, neglected, or abandoned are torn from their homes everyday — which causes them even more trauma. Many are placed in Foster Care through no fault of their own. At any given time, there are over 420,000 children in the system. I firmly believe that they are “DISPLACED TRAUMATIZED VICTOMS” — some of whom act out in anger, confusion, revenge, severe pain, and desperation — just like many “normal” people did during the COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020.
I would like our leaders, legislators, teachers and counselors to be more Trauma-Informed and help these people learn to deal with their traumatic wounds and help them move toward healing. I believe this has contributed to a silent mental health crisis in America.
Studies show that nearly 60% of children placed in Foster Care come from poverty-driven issues (neglect & safety) I also believe there should be more Family Focused programs — both secular and Church-based to help and assist struggling families instead of punishing them (and the children) by ripping them apart. The Family First initiatives around the country are a great first step toward that solution.
I am currently becoming involved in a program called “All In Fostering Futures” It promotes a holistic approach to call on ALL members of the community to come alongside of struggling families and provide them the support and help that they need BEFORE interventions require children to be removed.
“All In” also supports children in Foster Care by helping and supporting Foster Parent, Kinship Parents, Agencies and other Advocates in the system. Finally, “All In” comes alongside Aged Out youth and adults who have been in care, are now independent, who are struggling and may need some help transitioning to autonomous lives. It promises to provide HOPE and resources for many people who struggle & suffer in silence and just want to succeed in the world around them.
Learn more about “All In” at Https://www.AllinFosteringFutures.org
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
I admire the story of Andrew Bridge and how his resilience coupled with his academic brilliance has led him to great heights from foster care to a Fulbright Scholar and on to becoming a champion for reforming Child Welfare programs all over the world!
How can our readers further follow your work online?
FINALLY — watch for updates about my new non-profit which promises to bring HOPE and greater insightful resources to light for Agencies, CASAs, Foster Parents and Foster Alumni!
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!