Garry Gilliam: Helping People Succeed Through Adversity

Garry Gilliam_Exeleon Magazine

Garry Gilliam is all about Perseverance Through Adversity. While it may sound cliché, adversity has been an all too visitor on Garry’s doorstep, almost since he was born. Growing up in a single-parent household in a troubled neighborhood in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Garry was an intelligent child, bored with the pace of school, and often finding his way into trouble to fill that boredom. 

Describing the area of town where Garry grew up as “troubled” hardly does it justice. What do you call a place that suffered for more than a century from systemic oppression and racism, which resulted in lack of economic opportunity, shorter lifespans, food deserts and despair? Yes…Harrisburg. 

When Garry was in third grade, his mother, without telling him, enrolled him at the Milton Hershey School, a free private boarding school in Hershey, PA, for kids who came from families struggling below the poverty line. 

His first day at the Milton Hershey School is forever etched in his mind. His mother took Garry to play on the playground at the Milton Hershey School, telling him she had some errands to run and would soon return for him. As the afternoon wore away to evening, and the warm late-summer sun of the afternoon was exchanged for the chill of evening, the man who would be Garry’s new houseparent called him into the large mansion-sized dormitory home for dinner. 

Certain that there had been some mistake, Garry was adamant that his mother would be coming back for him after she finished her errands, but the shocking realization that his mother had left him there soon settled in, and Garry was left to struggle with confusion, fear, and sadness. 

Finding Himself

Initially, at this young age, in an unfamiliar environment, flooded with more questions than answers, Garry decided that he was going to learn, achieve, participate, and excel at academics, extracurricular activities and sports so that he would be a little less homesick. 

In a very short amount of time, with a maturity well beyond most other eight-year-olds, Garry soon realized that if he made the most of his time at Milton Hershey School, not only would he have access to opportunities that the other kids in his old neighborhood in Harrisburg would never have, but he would be able to grow up and go back to positively impact the very neighborhoods that he was able to escape. 

Garry is quick to point out that his mother took him to Milton Hershey School out of love. She wanted him to have a better life – better than what she could provide in the rough area of town as a single mother. She knew that if she told him she was taking him to live at this school, he would have put up a fight, so she dropped Garry off and left, an experience that he realizes today was just as hard for her as it was for him. 

Even though it was an opportunity of a lifetime, Garry had to persevere through adversity at first, adjusting to being away from the familiarity of home at such a tender age. While the initial months in his new home were filled with confusion, Garry settled in and embraced the gift he had been given – access to education and opportunity. 

Becoming a Scholar 

With the help of the staff at the school, Garry persevered. He succeeded academically as well as in a wide range of artistic pursuits, including ballet, tap, choir, base violin, as well as in sports, later earning a full football scholarship to Penn State University as a tight end and defensive end. Not only had he been the second person in his family to graduate from high school (first was his brother), but he was also the first to go to college. 

At Penn State University, Garry devoted himself to both his academics and football, as mandated to the team by legendary head coach, Joe Paterno, with Garry aspiring to not only be a top player in college, but to someday go on to play professionally in the NFL. And then, with no warning, his next dose of adversity hit him squarely in the knee. 

During the Penn State game against Iowa – in the beginning of the 2010 season, Garry faced a potentially career-ending injury in which he blew out his ACL, MCL and Meniscus. Facing months of multiple surgeries, further complicated with a life-threatening staph infection that settled into his bone marrow that he contracted between surgeries, Garry missed two seasons, questioning if he would ever play football again. 

When the doctors finally told Garry that he had only a 10 percent chance of ever playing football again, after reflecting on all that he had overcome in his life so far, his “I got this!” attitude kicked in, with Garry realizing that 10 percent odds were a lot higher than the odds that he had already overcome in life – escaping ‘the hood’, excelling at Milton Hershey, getting a full scholarship to Penn State, and living through a potentially deadly infection. 

Ten percent odds sounded pretty good to him. “I’m not gonna lie to you, my Persevere Through Adversity ethos was put to its greatest test. The rehab was beyond grueling. My grades, which were always stellar, suffered. Just walking, let alone playing football at the highest level, seemed impossible. I thought about giving up,” notes Garry. 

It was a call to Mrs. Ainsworth, his Junior Chapel leader at the Milton Hershey School, that helped get him back on track. Mrs. Ainsworth reminded him that, “God gives the hardest battles to the strongest soldiers”. That flipped the switch for Garry, and he went back at it, grinding and working, improving his grades, finally making it back onto the field after 18 months, to start for his beloved Nittany Lions once again. 

Garry graduated from Penn State University with three degrees in business, advertising, and psychology. He had lost some of his speed during the recovery from his injuries, causing him to lose his edge as a tight end, so he switched positions, going into the NFL Draft as an offensive tackle.

Adversities Continued

Because he had little experience as an offensive tackle in college, Garry went undrafted in the 2014 NFL draft. He signed as an undrafted free agent with the Seattle Seahawks, who were fresh off a Super Bowl win, and had just drafted players at his position. Low man on the totem pole, it was very unlikely that Garry would make the team as they headed into training camp but reflecting on the adversities he had already overcome in life, Garry embraced the challenge and ultimately made the team. 

That first year, he played in every game, mostly on special teams, and caught a touchdown pass on a fake field goal in the NFC Championship Game against Green Bay that turned the game around and propelled the Seahawks to Super Bowl XLIX. 

The Entrepreneurial Beginning

After playing in the NFL for five seasons, Garry was ready to embark on the next chapter in his life, as CEO of The Bridge Eco-Village, a breakthrough mixed-use development in his hometown of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. 

The Bridge Eco-Village is designed to provide the underserved and other marginalized folks with a place to work, eat, live, learn, and play. Put another way, The Bridge will offer people who are facing adversity caused by systemic oppression an opportunity to persevere, overcome and succeed in life in ways not previously accessible to them. 

Providing access to vocation skills so that individuals can gain skilled employment, access to nutritious food, training in financial literacy, recreation and housing, Garry is committed to changing the ecosystem of the inner city, using The Bridge Eco-Village as the vehicle for community growth, empowerment, and prosperity. 

“No matter who it is, we always need more voices to join the fight against social injustice, poverty, climate change and other challenges identified by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. When I talk about The Bridge’s mission with guys in the NFL, they get really excited and, understanding our mission, want to know what they can do to get involved”, states Gilliam. 

Setting up the framework for The Bridge as a model that can be white labeled elsewhere in the country, Garry recognizes that this is an opportunity for other athletes to impact their own communities using The Bridge model, essentially allowing players to come together to BE the solution to come of the most critical challenges facing our urban areas. 

For the People

As the ground is breaking on the renovation of The Bridge Eco-Village in Harrisburg, Garry, who also has led a consulting firm and a real estate company, is focused on acquiring old abandoned, vacant properties in inner cities across America, such as schools, malls and warehouses, turning them into sustainable, affordable, self-contained mixed-use developments. 

“Having the opportunity to escape ‘the Hood’ as a child, I recognize that I was given that opportunity so that I would be able to gain the knowledge, skills, resources and determination necessary to someday return to the inner city to drive solutions for economic and social empowerment and acceleration. The Bridge will allow us to reshape the City of Harrisburg, changing the lives of everyone in the community, with a model that can be replicated across the globe”, notes Gilliam. “As one of God’s strongest soldiers, I will continue to face down adversity, beating unimaginable odds, to be the voice for the voiceless and the hope for the hopeless, using The Bridge as the beacon of systemic change, potentially reshaping the future for millions.”

Leading by example, pioneering solutions to some of our most critical challenges, Garry is reforming the social makeup of our cities today to create a more just, equitable and prosperous tomorrow for all people, regardless of socio economics, education level or zip code. 

Garry Gilliam is the example of a modern-day transformational leader, recognizing that there is no challenge or adversity that cannot be overcome with unity, collaboration, determination, education, and faith.

Visit Garry Gilliam’s LinkedIn Profile.

Read Previous

Jesse Nicassio: Improving Fitness with Innovative Equipment

Read Next

Holly Qualman: Advocating Thought Leadership and Empowerment