Will VanBrackle served his country in the U.S. Air Force. Now he serves the Bay Area youth community by helping the kids of incarcerated parents through Project Avary—and by volunteering as a KidCAT facilitator inside San Quentin.
A troubled youth himself, VanBrackle faced his own life struggles before finding a path to being of service. “As a teenager, I spent a lot of time doing the wrong things in the wrong places, a whole lot of dumb stuff— the same kind of activities that lead guys to wind up in here” he explained.
“Had my luck been different or had I been a different color, those things could have easily landed me in an establishment just like this one. I was very fortunate,” he said.
To escape poverty and what he perceived as a dead- end existence, VanBrackle enlisted in the military.
“I joined the Air Force with all the dreams and aspirations that one recruiter could fill my head with,” he said. “During my time serving in the military, I experienced more than any poor kid from Pennsylvania could have wished for.”
VanBrackle’s plan to spend a full career in uni- form, however, became de- railed through numerous tours of duty.
“Five years later, I had more time deployed to combat zones than time spent state side,” he said—the glint of a thousand-yard stare almost returning to his eyes. “I had lost best friends, relationships and family.
“I felt like I was in an endless cycle of self-harm that was being fueled by the military. I was broken— physically, emotionally and mentally.”
With only a two-week break between deployments, VanBrackle realized he needed to break the cycle. According to him, his superior officers offered him no choice but to declare that he was “mentally unfit to go.”
“Had I not said those few words, they were prepared to throw me in jail for fail- ing to obey a lawful order,” he stated. “But it enabled me to start getting the treatment I needed.”
The USAF relieved VanBrackle of all his duties and eventually discharged him for PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).
“Distanced from friends and coworkers, I was isolated at a time when I needed support the most,” he said. “There were no support groups, mentoring or help. I was alone.
“My time in the military was over, and I knew serving my country wasn’t the service I was best suited for.”
VanBrackle began forging a career for himself in the food service industry, eventually finding a niche as a personal chef for well-to- do families.
“But I was not fulfilled,” he said. “Something was missing.”
With his wife Kellene by his side, he would listen to stories shared by her parents—stories spanning 40 years of professional service in the medical field. Beyond their retirement, his in-laws still served as volunteers, consultants and advocates for their community.
“They continue to inspire Kellene and me. We would sit in awe,” VanBrackle said. “It was those nights and those conversations that motivated me to find my path.”
Kellene became a pro- gram director for Project Avary, the local organization designed for children with a parent or loved one incarcerated. Often serving as a communal safety net, Project Avary provides out- door adventure days, sum- mer camp, retreats, and lots of family-style meals—all free of charge through donations and funding.
“From the late night work sessions to the long camps, watching her give her all for these children and this community has been nothing short of inspirational,” he said. “Mostly, we try to make sure these kids get the chance to have fun and be surrounded by love.”
A tight-knit crew devoted to their work, Project Avary welcomed VanBrackle’s culinary expertise. It didn’t take long for them to embrace him as family.
“Once I met and cooked for the children, it felt like every light bulb in the world had been turned on,” he said. “My head was spinning and my heart was exploding.
“I didn’t know it, but Project Avary was what I had been looking for.”
It hurts VanBrackle deeply to see and hear kids deprived of some basic elements in growing up happy—good food in a family environment.
“One of the reasons I love cooking for Avary is watching the children and counselors come together over a shared meal—passing dishes, trying new things, chatting about the ups and downs of their day,” he said. “Families across the globe look so different, but sharing food together is a funda- mental experience that has been going on for centuries.
“To see them so happy eating my food is the best feeling in the world… and Project Avary is what brought me to KidCAT.”
At San Quentin’s annual Avary Walk in 2018, VanBrackle met members of KidCAT for the first time while he and Kellene got to know the men responsible for organizing the fundraising walk.
Each year, KidCAT encourages everyone at SQ to participate and donate at least five dollars to Project Avary. With fund matches pledged by outside donors, KidCAT was able to help raise over $18,000 in 2019.
“It was the same feeling I had when I first started working with the children of Avary,” said VanBrackle. “Kellene and I went home with our heads spinning. It took a few days to come down from that.
“That experience, combined with our current world events, left me feeling like I needed to do more. I just wasn’t sure how I was going to be able to come back inside.”
VanBrackle’s mind never strayed too far from Kid- CAT’s mission of serving the incarcerated youth offender community and at- risk youths outside of prison.
“I had long stretches of time between seeing the members of KidCAT,” he said. “It’s a lot harder to get in here than you’d think, but I eventually wiggled my way back in.”
Through the advice and assistance of longtime Kid- CAT volunteer Bev Shelby and SQ’s Community Partnership Analyst Dina Durano, VanBrackle became an official member of Kid- CAT’s facilitation team.
“I had a lot of time to think about the why,” he said. “Why this path? Why San Quentin? Why these men?
“Project Avary is there to break the cycle of incarceration and give the children an outlet. But who and what is there for these men?
“Why are we as a community not doing more to help these men? So when they rejoin society they are more than ready? Who is there to tell their stories?”
The same reason that KidCAT became involved in helping raise funds for Project Avary now became a reason for VanBreckle to extend himself into the KidCAT family and SQ community.
“These men share some of the traits I see in the children of Avary—perseverance, resiliency, hope, potential and love,” he said.
VanBrackle wants the world to understand, empathize and join him in his cause.
“I serve to help reduce the stigma of incarceration. I serve to create awareness in our community,” he said. “I serve to be the bridge be- tween these men and their future home.
“I serve to make our community better as a whole for everyone.”
To learn more about Project Avary, go to www. projectavary.org or write to KidCATSpeaks.