Be grateful for being a survivor of whatever challenges you have been through. They are ALL growth opportunities. Don’t be negative or turn bitter. As a foster care survivor, I was supposed to wind up homeless, incarcerated and become a non-college-graduate failure. I overcame ALL of those challenges — in spite of being in the Foster Care system for over 5 years, emancipating out at 17, going through my own two divorces, a heart attack AND now the COVID-19 lock-down (I am severely compromised & vulnerable)…I am grateful to STILL BE HERE and share these things with YOU!
As we all know, times are tough right now. In addition to the acute medical crisis caused by the Pandemic, in our post COVID world, we are also experiencing what some have called a “mental health pandemic”.
What can each of us do to get out of this “Pandemic Induced Mental and Emotional Funk”?
One tool that each of us has access to is the simple power of daily gratitude. As a part of our series about the “How Each Of Us Can Leverage The Power Of Gratitude To Improve Our Overall Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing Danny Vann of Foster Care Survivor.
Born in 1953 the oldest of six kids, Danny Vann has faced many challenges in his life. He is a foster care survivor and a prime example of how to overcome life’s obstacles. He has been inspiring and motivating people for decades through his professional music, corporate leadership and church fellowship roles. After open heart surgery and a heart attack 15 years later, he studied and became an ordained minister, foster care advocate and youth mentor. He is a Songwriter, recording artist and the author of My Journey in the Shadow of “The King” — A story of hope and resilience…the discovery of a cherished life. Learn more at DannyVann.com
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about you and about what brought you to your specific career path?
Thank you for allowing me to tell my story. After my parents’ violent divorce and my mom’s failure to maintain a household on her own in the early 1960’s, we were farmed out to various relatives but that ultimately failed too and we were dropped off at an orphanage (now called Group Home) and then on to separate Foster Homes. From there, Dad rescued us and restored the condemned homestead. Unfortunately, he married our alcoholic nanny and the violence resumed. I emancipated out at 17 and moved 100 miles away when a family I met at a local radio-sponsored talent show offered to take me in so I could sing professionally with their teen daughter. I later discovered this was a ploy to generate cash for the family, so I left and was taken in by an English teacher at the local high school. Her husband was a Protestant Minister. Throughout my life music and God were my constant anchors helping me through the trials and storms. I graduated high school that year with honors and went on to create two beautiful children, but unfortunately struggled with my own failed marriages. I did manage to break the violence and alcoholism cycles. My kids are now grown, stable and happy. I have mended all relationships and was in a good place with BOTH of my parents before they died. I have suffered multiple heart surgeries, then a heart attack in 2013, brought my life to a screeching halt. It was during that 2 1/2 year recovery that I began my current mission to reach out from home to help current and aged-out foster youth in order to pay back (and pay forward) all the people that helped my along my way. I am currently married to the most wonderful and supportive woman I could have ever imagined. She is helping me achieve my new goals.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I was performing yearly benefit concerts for and visiting the boys at the Lutheran Boy’s Home in Bay City, Michigan and the director called me one day and said one of the boys there asked him, “Who is this guy (Danny Vann) and why does he care about us? He doesn’t even know us.” I told the director to go back and tell that young man that when I was his age, people came and helped me and my siblings. Now it’s MY turn to help you…and when you grow up, it will be YOUR turn to help others. Later that year, the director told me how encouraging my story was for the boys and advocate-staff alike. He said I needed to share it with others. His words echoed with me as I sat on my couch during my 2 1/2 year recovery. That’s when I decided to write my first book, “My Journey in the Shadow of “The King”.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why do you think that resonates with you? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life? Great question: My favorite Life Lesson Quote is “Do Unto Others — Like you want done to you” As I graduated from a high school that I had only attended for 1 year, one of my bosses at Montgomery Wards gave me a going-away, graduation gift: it was a plaque of the Golden Rule. She said it reminded her of the way she saw me living my life. Whether she REALLY saw that in me or not, it was an awesome challenge to an 18 year old traumatized person to live up to. I had already been raised as the oldest of six kids to take care of others, but THIS took it to a new level. Since that time, I realized that no matter what is happening in MY LIFE, there is always someone near by that could use a helping hand. I have lived that way and taught my kids to do the same. It is VERY uplifting to help others even if you are down yourself. I’m very grateful for that encounter and challenge in my youth.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story about why that resonated with you?
There are so many books that have impacted me, but TWO of the greatest are the Bible and The Magic of Thinking Big by David J. Schwartz. The Bible has always been near and dear to me because of my early exposure to it at our Catechism classes in my earliest youth. The many life lessons and solid guidance are unchangeable and priceless. I encourage all young people to get a modern English version and read from it. (especially the Proverbs of King Solomon and the Psalms of King David) The Magic of Thinking Big came into my life at one of my lowest ebbs just after a divorce and job loss due to down-sizing in the mid-1990’s. The key take-away from the book for me was that the limits on our lives are mostly self-imposed. That is to say, we tell ourselves “I’m only worth this much” or “I can’t go beyond this level because I’m not trained or not ready.” These are self-defeating lies that limit us. When I finally understood that it was okay to reach beyond my own limits, it was very liberating and helpful for moving forward and upward both in business and within myself. We all have unlimited potential — no matter where we are at any given moment, we can still reach higher levels if we stretch and try without giving up. Failure is an opportunity to learn and grow.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
As a matter of fact, I am working on “two” new projects that are interrelated. I’m writing a new book to help encourage and educate current and former foster youth and family members. It is called “A Journey from Fostered to Forgiveness.” It follows the events from a broken home-to-foster home-emancipation-and life lived into adulthood-to being reconciled with the bio-family. It’s very insightful, emotional and challenging. At the same time, I am creating a new online webinar series to help prepare future Aging Out Youth for their upcoming Independence and Autonomy. I’m calling it the “Aging Out Academy” it will have multiple lesson modules to walk the youth through the various stages — starting at the beginning of high school — all the way through moving out of a foster home, into a job and independent living. It will be full of step-by-step lessons, instructions, resources and examples on how to get through the transition into taking over their own life decisions. I am working on making connections to also help connect each teen to a Mentor, Life Coach and/or Apprenticeship partner. This will help insure the training is APPLIED vs. just observed learning. I am VERY excited about the potential for those struggling to get on their own feet in life.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Wow. That’s a tough one for me because there were so many people that came alongside of me over my life. Once again, I’m going to cite “2” key people that made a MAJOR difference in my life. The first is my wife, Lena, who actually SAVED my life when I was having a heart attack and just wanted to lie down and take a nap. She would NOT let me do that. She called my mother and then my sister to coax me into going to urgent care — just one mile down the road. (I don’t know why I was so stubborn) The urgent care staff discovered that I was “in the process” of having a heart attack & called an ambulance to take me to the ER. The ER doctor later told me that my heart attack was in the widow-maker artery and if I had laid down, I would have never woken up. I owe my life to my wife. She is awesome and very supportive of all the help I want to offer others.
The second person that made a major impact on my life was my pastor and counselor, Brad Williams who helped me see my way back to Jesus. He also counseled me for several years to realize I needed to prioritize God first in my life, then my own heath, marriage & family, my job and that pleasing others needed to be down the totem pole from where I had placed them. Getting my priorities straight was a great help during several crises in my life. It has been one of my biggest challenges. Pastor Brad has written many books to help with various aspects of life. He can be found on Amazon.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now that we are on the topic of gratitude, let’s move to the main focus of our interview. As you know, the collective mental health of our country is facing extreme pressure. We would like to explore together how every one of us can use gratitude to improve our mental wellness. Let’s start with a basic definition of terms. How do you define the concept of Gratitude? Can you explain what you mean?
I think the Webster’s Dictionary puts it quite simply: It is THANKFULNESS. The state of being grateful. I have traveled around the world over the years and there are PLENTY of countries and places where people have far less than America’s POOREST people. I mean our worse slumlord housing is far superior to the way many people in the world have to live daily. Yet, we Americans whine and complain when we can’t by TWO PACKS of toilet paper or ride an airplane or sit in a fancy restaurant together. We have been blessed with such abundance for so long that we don’t know how to be grateful for what we DO HAVE. We always seem to be focused on what we DON’T HAVE. So, when we lose our jobs, or some of our freedoms, or are forced to restrict our movements, we scream FOUL! I remember when my family had very little. I was the oldest of six kids and I wore hand-me-down clothes. We didn’t have much money or food — except Government surplus (Korean War surplus) foods. Powdered eggs, powdered milk, smelly brick cheese and large bags of flour that usually got filled with bugs before we could use it all or were allowed to get more supplies. I even had to carry my lunch to school in the same brown paper bag everyday until it fell apart. It was so embarrassing to carry that wrinkled bag and try to hide it from sight. When you have spent time living like that, you realize how well SOME people have got it. You can be GRATEFUL for LITTLE THINGS. We have a LOT to be grateful for in America! I was still a happy-outgoing person back then. I knew God loved me!
Why do you think so many people do not feel gratitude? How would you articulate why a simple emotion can be so elusive?
Before the divorce, Dad used to tell us we were all SPOILED ROTTEN — he was raised during the Great Depression-era. He knew what REAL hunger was like. Most people today have NO IDEA what it means to go without. There are so many support programs and welfare handouts. We have forgotten how to be humble. How can you feel gratitude when you are raised with more than you can EVER NEED — yet, you still want more? You crave the newest, the BEST and whatever they dangle in front of your eyes on TV. Most kids today believe everybody (especially the government) OWES THEM something. They expect everyone to take care of them. It’s very sad. Gratitude is elusive because being thankful has been replaced with “GIMME” and “just throw it away, and buy a NEW ONE.”
This might be intuitive to you but I think it will be constructive to help spell it out. Can you share with us a few ways that increased gratitude can benefit and enhance our life?
I’d love to try. By looking at what we already have, instead of what we don’t have, we can reduce our stress and anxiety. When we SMILE even though we might feel sad inside, that smile will cause those around us to smile back at us — which in turn causes us to feel good about what’s happening around us. It’s like looking in a mirror — you get back what you give out. Counting our blessings and being thankful for the good things in life generates a positive image. Sometimes it is good to look around at people who are less fortunate because it helps us to see how truly blessed we are. It’s even better when we SHARE those blessings and demonstrate TRUE gratitude by blessing others with some of our overabundance. It REALLY is better to give than to receive.
Let’s talk about mental wellness in particular. Can you share with us a few examples of how gratitude can help improve mental wellness?
As I said earlier, being thankful and wearing a smile is like looking at our reflection in a mirror. The happier we are about our circumstances, the better we feel. Anybody can reach for more and more — there could be no end to greed and selfishness. But when we decide to actually be content with things already given to us, the peace of mind just takes over and we become relaxed and happy about things in our life. That’s why many Americans are amazed at how happy and content people from poorer nations are in spite of how little they possess. Gratitude is also contagious. When we are thankful and express our gratitude to others, they tend to pass that “good feeling” along to others as well. It’s hard to give up the addiction of wanting NEW stuff, but once we “decide” to be happy with what we have, it’s like finally jumping off the exercise wheel and taking a much deserved rest. We feel better and even look better due to having less to stress about!
OK wonderful. Now here is the main question of our discussion. From your experience or research, what are “Five Ways That Each Of Us Can Leverage The Power Of Gratitude To Improve Our Overall Mental Wellness”. Can you please share a story or example for each?
- In order to overcome impossible obstacles, look at the glass as half-FULL…find reasons to move forward instead of excuses to quit. I’ve always been a person that finds the silver-lining in ALL circumstances. When I got tired (and embarrassed) of carrying a week-old crumpled brown paper sack lunch to school because we were so poor, I volunteered to work at the cafeteria doing ANYTHING in order to earn a hot lunch for myself. It turned out that it also gave me to chance to play my guitar and sing for the staff and other students — one of my FAVORITE things to do. It was such a blessing that I might have missed if I just gave up and got bitter over my circumstances.
- By looking for things to be grateful for — vs. complaining about things happening around me — I have been able to see CLEARLY what possibilities exist in ALL situations. Many of my friends & co-workers panic and just shut down. When you can step back and calmly review your problems and challenges, your mind can explore potential solutions and generate more ideas than when it is in a panic or angry mode. We had an emergency computer downtime due to a program error. As one of the support analysts, I was onsite for over 50 hours straight trying to find the “bug” — then fix it and test it. Everyone on the team was tired, frustrated, angry and just wanting to give up and go home. I took a brief nap in the break room and prayed for a solution — 30 minutes later the answer hit me — and within a couple of hours we were up-and-running. Calm and patience prevailed.
- Never give up! Find a way around. Ask more questions. Seek more help. Count the good things that you already know about a situation. But NEVER give up. As a child in foster care, many things were out of my control. But, I never stopped trying to make things better for myself and my younger siblings who were in different foster homes across the city. So at 15 years old, I took a job as an ice cream push-cart vendor and sold ice cream all summer. I saved the money and bought each of my brothers and sisters a bike so we could ride them in order to see each other more often when our parents failed to come and see us on visitation weekends. I was grateful my foster parents allowed me to keep the job. I was grateful to find used bikes for my 5 siblings. And I was grateful that we were all within bicycling distance.
- Be grateful for being a survivor of whatever challenges you have been through. They are ALL growth opportunities. Don’t be negative or turn bitter. As a foster care survivor, I was supposed to wind up homeless, incarcerated and become a non-college-graduate failure. I overcame ALL of those challenges — in spite of being in the Foster Care system for over 5 years, emancipating out at 17, going through my own two divorces, a heart attack AND now the COVID-19 lock-down (I am severely compromised & vulnerable)…I am grateful to STILL BE HERE and share these things with YOU!
- Reach out to God. Ask Him for wisdom! None of us are too smart or too successful that we don’t need to reach out for help at times. Be thankful and grateful that others have helped you in the past — and then pay it forward. Be that person that makes a difference in someone else’s life. Today, I am reaching out from my home computer to ENCOURAGE and Educate others — especially current foster youth, foster parents and advocates. Proclaiming a “Never give up” message to all who will listen.
Is there a particular practice that can be used during a time when one is feeling really down, really vulnerable, or really sensitive?
Yes, I strongly believe that God helps those that turn to Him & seek Him with all their heart. If you need help, go ahead and reach out to others. If they are not available to you, read the book of Psalms in the Bible. It is one of my most treasured encouragement books!
Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that you would recommend to our readers to help them to live with gratitude?
Yes, as I suggested earlier, I often use the Bible, especially the book of Psalms and Proverbs to encourage & guide me. For former fosters, I recommend two podcasts, Fostering Change with Rob Scheer and FosterCareNation.com with Jason and Amanda Palmer. Both programs promote the gratitude of successful foster alumni for all the help they received from various sources. Both are very uplifting based on gratitude!
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’ve started an e-mentoring challenge to Isolated Seniors — who have wisdom, life-experience, time and a heart for kids — to connect with Foster Youth — in groups homes, adoption agencies, or even those aged out or emancipated. The Seniors can share all they have with kids who need relationships and all that golden-year stuff. The www.YouSeeYou.org staff are ready to train-up, supervise and connect the two groups. I believe BOTH groups will benefit from these dynamic relationships. They will also fulfill James 1:27 which details “perfect” or “mature” religion as visiting the widow and the fatherless.
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
I can be reached at DannyVann.com on my Facebook, LinkedIn & YouTube pages at: DannyVannFosterCareSurvivor
Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!
Thank YOU for allowing me to share.