Former BR athlete now finds rewards as a Big Buddy

Some people have a talent for turning adversity into triumph. Michael Phillips turned a sports injury, an even more severe health setback and profound grief — among other things — into being a mentor.

Since 2010, Phillips has been a Big Buddy mentor for Teveonte, who was a year behind his grade level and still struggling in school when they met. Now, he has overcome a learning disability to pass the LEAP test and grow confident with his education. He’s not the only one to gain from this relationship.

“The reward for me is actually more than I’ve ever given him,” Phillips said.

After a torn rotator cuff ended his high school baseball days, Phillips began coaching youth baseball. He loved working with the kids, and continued as he attended LSU and anticipated going to law school.

In his senior year, however, Phillips had a stroke at age 24 that paralyzed the left side of his body, made worse by the fact that Phillips is left-handed. He spent six weeks in a rehabilitation hospital and has regained all his movement, though his fine-motor skills in his left hand remain diminished.

“After the stroke, it kind of changed my world,” Phillips said. “I always thought I was kind of invincible. I was young and dumb, and in the flash of an eye I was paralyzed on the left side of my body and faced with my mortality.

“I pretty quickly realized I didn’t have what it took to go to law school anymore. My brain didn’t function in the same manner that it did before. Eventually, I got back to where I was and was working at a law firm as a runner for them, and I realized working in a law office wasn’t for me.”

Phillips took a job with UpLIFTD, where he is a vocational specialist helping people with disabilities enter or re-enter the workforce.

He would also have to deal with the loss of his father, Mike, who died six months after being diagnosed with cancer.

“I was there with my dad the whole time and helping my mom and my sisters take care of him while he was dying,” Phillips said. “After he died, I don’t know, I was kind of in a world of my own. I tried to hide it from everybody and didn’t feel much like myself. I was grieving, and then the whole Big Buddy thing came along.”

Phillips was invited to participate in Big Buddy’s Day of the Mentor in 2010, where he was introduced to Teveonte.

“He was a really cool kid,” Phillips said. “He reminded me a lot of myself when I was younger — loves sports, he would say dumb things that were hilarious like I would, like I still do, and he made me laugh the whole day. At the end of the day he asked me if I would be his mentor, and I immediately said yes and signed up to be a mentor.”

They got together at Big Buddy events, and Phillips would pick him up and hang out. Phillips says he rewards Teveonte with fast food when he does well in school.

“Boy, he can eat like he’s got a hollow leg,” Phillips said.

But school was a struggle, particularly reading, which Teveonte hated even when offered rewards for doing it.

One day, Phillips noticed the Teveonte’s handwriting resembled one of Phillips’ sisters, who had struggled with dyslexia.

Phillips alerted Teveonte’s school and family, and he has received help to overcome the learning disability.

Phillips said he plans to keep the mentor relationship as long as Teveonte wishes. Phillips’ own struggles have helped him realize its importance.

“Before my stroke, I was driven by other things,” he said. “Seeing your own mortality in your early 20s kind of makes you realize your life means more. I just want to enjoy it. Part of it is doing things to help others. I don’t want to make it sound like I’m trying to change the world with everything I do, because I’m not. I feel like I’m doing more when I’m doing for others.”

For information on Big Buddy and its mentoring opportunities, email bigbuddy@bigbuddyprogram.org or call (225) 388-9737.