(CNN) — Looking at Shawn Blanchard today, it’s hard to believe the polished, well-spoken University of Michigan grad and Detroit city official once envisioned a life as a kingpin drug dealer.
“Never judge a book by its cover.” He laughs.
From ‘crack baby’ to the mayor’s office
For Blanchard these words are more than a personal motto — they are a heartfelt mission to those in need of change. The Detroit native is now dedicating much of his life as a mentor helping men and women to set goals and tap into their fullest potential.
As a child, Blanchard’s childhood was anything but traditional. He says he was born with drugs in his system to a mother who supported herself by shoplifting and to a father he barely saw.
With both parents unable to care for him, Blanchard was given to his paternal grandmother. He says, it was his grandmother who taught him the importance of having an education.
“My grandmother was always demanding when it came to school,” he recalls. “She made sure school was at the forefront of my mind.”
However, despite her efforts to keep him on track, Blanchard says his life was instantly “turned upside down” when his grandmother passed away.
“She was the rock of my life. I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
At 12 years old, Blanchard was on his own.
“I became an old man at the age of 12. I had to be pretty independent” he remembers.
His two oldest brothers, who were Detroit drug dealers, were his role models.
“One of my brothers was considered one of Detroit’s most notorious drug lords.” He reveals.
“He had it all … I wanted to be just like him.” He says. “Once my grandmother was gone, there was no filter.”
In a neighborhood saturated with gang activity, drug sales, and crime, Blanchard says successful professional role models were hard to find.
While there were some blue-collar factory workers in the community, he admits they didn’t share the same wealth and lifestyle that his brothers had.
“The same things you would see celebrities on TV have, they had.” He says. “And, they had respect.”
Also, Blanchard couldn’t work in a factory at 12 — but selling drugs had no age requirement.
“I had this duality going on. I was this smart kid, but at the same time I was selling drugs.” He says. “I lived a double life.”
Blanchard says a part of his transformation happened when one of his brothers was killed in a drug transaction and the other was shot and went to prison.
“It didn’t look like it was going to end pretty well.” He says.
“I had to be a bit more strategic and make a choice. Am I going to do this the right way? Or am I going to do this the wrong way. So I started to focus on the right way.
After high school Blanchard went onto the University of Michigan. He credits the help of a high school counselor to get him get there.
“I always kept a 3.7 GPA with the exception of my 11th year. He says. “That’s when the pressures of wanting to do the negative things in life started to get me.”
Blanchard says his counselor, a Michigan grad, became the “push” he needed to get through.
Blanchard graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in mathematical economics. After graduation he moved to New York City, got a master’s degree in secondary math education, became a high school math teacher and founded a mentorship program for young men. Through that program Blanchard says he became the legal guardian of a troubled teen who became senior class president and graduated high school with a scholarship to college.
After five years in New York City, it was time for Blanchard to return to Detroit. “I love my city.” He says. “The same way that I was giving to youth there, I can give to my family right here.”
Today the 32-year-old serves his city as the director of youth services. He is responsible for overseeing youth initiatives under the mayor’s office. Blanchard is currently working with Detroit businesses to create 5,000 summer jobs for young people.
His favorite role is being a dedicated mentor through programs like Big Brothers Big Sister of Metropolitan Detroit. Blanchard and other mayoral staff members participate in a unique initiative partnering the nonprofit with the Detroit mayor’s office.
“We give them a slice of what we do so they can understand how things work from this municipality. ” He says.
Parents sometimes need help keeping their kids motivated and inspired.
As Blanchard says, “Everyone needs mentorship at every level. The affluent kid from some suburb needs to be mentored — it takes a village.”
“The tangible result that I have seen is a lot of self-confidence is built in the students,” says Clare Carr, site-based supervisor for Big Brothers Big Sisters Detroit. “The students are just very grateful for anyone who is willing to offer that (mentorship) in their life.”
Like Blanchard’s mentee Lance.
“Our relationship means everything,” the 14-year-old says. “He’s helping me build my future.”
Blanchard is transparent with his mentees about his past. He hopes his story will inspire them to dream and reach their goals.
“I use my story as an icebreaker.” He says. “By being vulnerable, it lets them know, they can do it.”
And for those who believe that they can’t, Blanchard one simple message for them:
“There are no limits. We can do anything.”