“Follow your dreams. Do what you want to do. Don’t screw up.”
These were among the last words Gerald Yarborough’s mother had spoken to him before she passed away, and they had been his motivation through his adult life. It was late 1998, and he was a freshman at St. John’s University, settling into his studies as a pharmacy major. He had everything lined up: a five-year scholarship with a good-paying job in a high-demand field likely upon graduation. Yet, his mother’s directive was persistent.
He was not following his dreams. He was not living his purpose. He felt this more strongly every day. Pharmaceuticals just wasn’t for him. He felt as though he was wasting his true gift: art.
So that is where he focused his full energies: his art electives. But after one year, St. John’s warned him that if he did not start taking sciences courses, he would lose his scholarship.
His mother’s simple proclamation gnawing at him, uncertain where to go, he left school instead of falling into debt with student loans. He told himself that if art was his true purpose in life, God would make a way. It appeared as though school was no longer in his plan. So he joined Geico, working in customer service.
He would spend the next three years there. But those last words from his mother hung with him, refusing to let his dreams dry up.
Helping others find their dreams
His name was Jonathan.
Gerald had met him at Nassau County Correctional Facility. They had encountered one another there many times before, Jonathan as the inmate, Gerald a visitor.
“I was doing good until somebody called the cops,” Jonathan would say.
“If you wouldn’t have been doing that, nobody would have called the police,” Gerald would counter.
This sort of interaction is not unusual for Gerald, an ordained outreach pastor at St. Albans Gospel Assembly in Queens. For the past 14 years, he has journeyed to the facility on the first Sunday of every month.
His message to the inmates: The choices you make shape your life. His offering: An invitation to change and a connection to his web of housing, jobs, church, legal and government contacts to help the prisoners do exactly that.
“The sad thing about it is that it’s mostly young minority men,” says Yarborough. “When you lose young men from a neighborhood, you lose a lot of leadership. You lose fathers, you lose brothers, you lose a generation because nobody is left to train them on how to live right. So I look forward to every interaction with them because it gives me an opportunity to change the neighborhoods I grew up in.”
With Jonathan, the message resonated. It turned out that his dad was a business owner in Philadelphia, a plumber with three shops. Jonathan was too proud to ask him for a job. Instead, he sold drugs.
Jonathan had a son who called every week to say that he missed him. The father would send pictures of the boy going to games, growing up without him. It was likely Jonathan would miss a good portion of the boy’s childhood – he faced up to six years in prison for his crimes.
This stoked something inside the man. He told Yarborough that he wanted to change. After two years of repeated visits, Yarborough had seen the way Jonathan would help quiet the room when inmates were talking over the service. He learned that Jonathan had begun running his own Bible study sessions and mentoring other inmates. So Yarborough wrote to a Mineola judge, vouching for Jonathan’s character.
He was released. Yarborough didn’t hear from him for half a year or more. Then one day, he received a long letter at his church office. Jonathan was now living in a house in Philadelphia. He was working for his dad. He had even taken over a route on the plumbing business. He attached a photo of him with his son with a simple message: “Thank you.”
It may be that Gerald’s own tale of perseverance infused him with this irrepressible belief that anyone can overcome circumstance.
On his very first day at Geico, he met the young woman who would become his wife. So what had seemed like a detour from his highway of dreams had turned out to be a central piece of his larger life plan.
But other things weren’t so certain. Yarborough began to wonder if he had screwed up by leaving school. Was his dream ever going to happen?
Then one day, St. John’s called. They had another scholarship for him. This time, it was for art focusing on graphic design and adverting. Another student had dropped out. They wanted him to come back, to make sure he didn’t waste his talent.
What to do? Exactly what his mother had told him: “Do what you want to do.” And what he wanted to do was art, and here was his opportunity. He just had to get through the part where he didn’t screw it up.
“In life some opportunities have a time stamp and you have to be prepared to work harder than anyone else to take advantage of those rare opportunities,” Yarborough says, reflecting on that time. So he did: he worked nights and took an aggressive 21 credits back-to-back, a punishing schedule that he attributes to helping him learn project and time management.
Somewhere within all this, Yarborough began an internship at Nickelodeon. His brother, who at the time was a director at MTV, had referred him. The creative opportunities seemed limitless. He worked with the head of illustration, and then with the design team. He worked on food, packaged goods, toys and video games before moving on to larger-scale projects in home furnishings.
But living the creative life was not the only thing he relished about his work at Viacom.
Finding creativity in unexpected places
“The arts saved my life,” Yarborough, who is now a 13-year Viacom veteran, will tell you. He wants to do the same for others. He finds plenty of opportunities through company-sponsored initiatives to do just that.
“You tell kids you work at Nickelodeon, and they’ll listen to anything you say.”
He is the social responsibility co-chair for the Beat Viacom, works with UP Mentoring, and sits on the planning board for the Sports and Arts in School Foundation, which provides after-school arts education to more than 20,000 New York City kids, particularly in minority and underserved communities, where schools have often excised these sorts of creative courses from their curriculum.
“A lot of these kids are very talented, but they don’t have outlets,” says Yarborough. “If it wasn’t for the arts, I would have fallen victim to the same statistics many of the other people who look like me have. A lot of the people I grew up with, they’re in jail. Some of them are even dead. I grew up around people who sold drugs and overcame the many hardships of coming of age in an urban community. So when I go back to the schools that I once went to and I get a chance to share my story with the students, it inspires them. To see someone who looks like them succeeding in a field that most people say is out of reach is motivating. You tell them you work at Nickelodeon, and they’ll listen to anything you say.”
And, he’s found out, teaching the arts can be an art in and of itself. He shows up early to his mentoring sessions, treats the kids to pizza at the local shop. “They open up while they’re eating, talking about what struggles they’re going through. It’s a sort of freestyle mentoring. You’re talking to them, and they don’t even know that you’re pushing them to their destiny, they’re just happy to be eating pizza.”
A closed fist gets you nothing
Gerald grew up in a family of five crammed into their Jamaica, Queens home. His father was a retired musician worked for the MTA and did photography on the side. His mother was a special education teacher would always help people out, piling kids in the car for a journey to Adventure Land or Splish Splash, inviting them to the pool. Yarborough’s summers were filled with neighborhood kids jumping into his backyard oasis wearing their underwear for swimsuits as his mom barbequed food for everyone. Sometimes he would wonder aloud to his mother where the money was coming from for all this.
“Money isn’t everything,” she would say. “Always be a helping hand and a blessing when you can. A closed fist doesn’t get anything. When you open your hands to give, you also have an opportunity to receive things with those same hands. The more you give, the more you get out of life.”
The Viacommunity difference
When Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, Viacom opened the Lodge cafeteria at its Times Square headquarters for employees. They could help themselves to breakfast, lunch and dinner for the entire week. For free.
Transit was a wreck throughout the region, and Yarborough was traveling for hours to get to work from Queens via the severely crippled Long Island Rail Road. Several relatives had crashed with him after being forced out of their homes by the storm: his wife’s mother, his sister (who had no power for a month) and her son, and his wife’s grandfather, who had evacuated from a six-floor walkup in Far Rockaway.
“That gave me so much peace, to not have to worry about what I was going to eat,” remembers Yarborough. “It makes you think, ‘Viacom is run by real people who are not just worried about checking a box on profit.’ It made me fall in love again with Viacom. This is not just a corporation, it’s a family. And when you think about what a family does, it kicks in when times get hard and does whatever it has to do to get family back on track.”
Viacommunity has had a powerful hold on Yarborough since he started with the company. He has helped make blankets, organized mailings for No Kid Hungry, and helped clean up communities that he never would have visited otherwise, mending fences or painting gazebos on storm-damaged beaches. He takes pride in returning to the same sites with family and friends and pointing out his work.
There is a uniting factor to Viacommunity events. Yarborough met coworkers – now friends – from BET and TV Land that he never may have encountered otherwise.
“The company is smart,” Yarborough says. “That kind of thing builds loyalty for me. They can pay me because I do good work, but that’s what every company does. For a company to give money for a person who’s not doing anything, they just want to give them a leg up, that’s great.”