Shawn Parker has never held a job that wasn’t in service of bettering the lives of others. He’s worked as a youth counsellor, an outreach worker, and a professional entertainer before landing his current position as a Street Navigator Outreach Worker in downtown Dartmouth and North End Halifax. Parker divides his time between both communities, answering dozens of calls per day from people who need him. He says it’s work he enjoys but takes seriously.
“I always say trust is a difficult thing to gain, but a very easy thing to lose,” says Parker.
Parker learned the significance of these words from his parents and others who influenced him over the years he spent growing up in North End Halifax in the 60s. He says he’s especially grateful for the mentorship of a man named Terry Symonds, who was his first basketball coach.
“I was six years old. Coach Symonds spotted me at a YMCA afterschool program. He noticed that I was tall, so he asked me to try out for the local team later that day. I had no clue about basketball. I just showed up and ran around the gym like an airplane! Somehow, I made the team anyway!”
Symonds recognized the potential in Parker and coached him into becoming one of Canada’s most dominant basketball players of his era. Parker says he will never forget the lessons that Symonds taught him on and off the court before his death in 1990.
“Terry believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. He taught me the most important lesson I ever learned: to give back what was given to you.”
Parker took these words to heart and started giving back as soon as he was old enough to become a youth counsellor at the community centre in his neighbourhood. As a young adult, he moved to Toronto and spent 17 years working with youth at an inner-city YMCA. During that time, he got recruited to tour North America with the Harlem Diplomats. Next to the Harlem Globetrotters, they were the world’s most successful show basketball team.
“At first, I didn’t want to play this non-competitive kind of basketball, but I’m glad I did, because it taught me to love the game again. I learned that I loved to put a smile on somebody else’s face.”
Parker says he’s grateful for the experiences he’s had playing basketball internationally, but the travel made him realize how much he missed home. Parker decided to move back to Halifax in 2008 and met his wife, Sandra. He also took on one of the most challenging roles of his career as an outreach worker with Ceasefire, an organization formed to help deal with a rise in gun violence in HRM. Parker was often called to assist with shootings on the same streets he played in as a youngster.
“I knew folks who came to the gym who ended up getting killed. I wanted to make a change in that culture of gun violence. It affects the whole community and it’s a hard thing to recover from.”
Parker did hundreds of mediations while working with Ceasefire. Not all were successful, but he says he knows he made a difference in the lives of many. Parker still receives letters of appreciation from young men he’s worked with.
“Recently, I had a young man tell me that the time we spent together saved him from doing twenty to thirty years in jail. But the truth is, that person touched my life as much as I did his.”
Parker now helps mand and women in need as a Street Navigator for the North End and Downtown Dartmouth Business Commissions. He describes his role as holding a person’s hand as they try to bridge their personal challenges to solutions.
“I’m there to put a roof over your head, or keep the power on, or put some food on your table. I will be that person who takes that extra step to try and take some of the burden off your shoulders.”
Parker says working in downtown Dartmouth was a new experience at first, but the community has been welcoming and supportive. Recently a woman from the neighbourhood reached out to Parker to offer a sizable gift card from a nearby store. Parker says he was able to purchase a winter coat for a man with the donation.
“Folks I have met here in downtown Dartmouth; I will carry with me to the end of my days. It’s a community built on love, respect and caring.”
Story and photo by Crystal Garrett