This Austin mentor refuses to give up on kids

12:00 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018 Lifestyle
Stephen Spillman/for American-Statesman
Leroy Nellis has been a mentor for elementary students through the Seedling Foundation for the past 16 years — 12 of those years at Allison Elementary. Nellis is the president-elect of the foundation, which mentors children of parents who are incarcerated or on probation.

Mentoring the children of parents who are incarcerated or on probation might not have seemed like a natural retirement career for certified public accountant Leroy Nellis. For numerous reasons that will become clear, it was exactly right.

First, he had seen the need with his own eyes. For nearly 20 years, Nellis served as Travis County budget director. During his tenure, he toured all the county jails with the sheriff each year, since that department always came in with the biggest budget requests.

“During these visits, I’d talk to the inmates,” recalls Nellis, 70, now president-elect of the Seedling Foundation, which mentors children of parents either incarcerated or on parole. “I’d always asked them what I should do to help the community. Almost unanimously, they recommended that I get involved with children before they get into the criminal justice system, because once you get in, it is extremely difficult to get out.”

Nellis recognized an opportunity to do so in 2002 when he contacted the Austin school district and requested to be assigned the most challenging kindergarten student, the first of 28 youths that he eventually mentored.

“I didn’t care where I had to travel to mentor this child to see if I could make a difference,” Nellis says. “I expected for them to say that they would get back with me in two to three weeks, but to my surprise they said they had just the right kindergarten student, Frederick, at Allan Elementary School in East Austin.”

Nellis next met with the school’s assistant principal, who tried to convince him that Frederick was too much of a challenge. After all, he was in and out of her office every day.

“I assured her that Frederick was just the kindergarten student I wanted to mentor,” Nellis says. “It turned out well. I mentored Frederick and at least one more student — and sometimes two more students — each year through to the present.”

Yet Nellis could not stop there. He applied his analytic training to survey all the mentoring programs in the area — and there are quite a few.

After a while, he felt there was still something missing. He found it 10 years ago at the Seedling Foundation.

Like David Rubin, board president for Court Appointed Special Advocates of Travis County, who committed his group to become the first urban CASA chapter to find advocates for every child in the area’s protective system, Nellis’ plans are unabashedly ambitious.

“I have set as a goal of increasing the number of Seedling mentors from our current 600 to 1,000 over the next several years,” he says. “There’s always 100 kids or so on a waiting list who have already been verified. And I never allow a challenge to stop me.”

Getting there

Affable and intent, Nellis seems unable to slow down completely. Sitting across from him at a high table in the Halcyon coffee shop on West Fourth Street, one begins to realize that he makes things happen slowly, steadily and with unquenchable good will.

One of five children, Nellis grew up in Killeen, where he graduated as high school valedictorian while working a nearly full-time job. He watched as his mother packed buses full of needy people to join her Pentecostal congregation.

“My mother did the same thing I’m doing now in Killeen.” He smiles. “She never took no for an answer.”

A scholarship student, he graduated from the University of Texas in 1969 with a degree in accounting and became a certified public accountant in 1972 while working for a large firm in Houston. After graduate school, he was hired as budget director for UT’s sprawling library system. While on campus, he served on countless committees.

Meanwhile, Nellis joined the Texas Army National Guard in 1969 and retired after 33 years as a command sergeant major. He served one year of active duty during Desert Storm and completed 26 airborne jumps during his military career.

And it’s not as if he lacked children to raise. Nellis has four offspring from his first marriage and five adopted children from his second. The grandchildren count is up to 15.

In public life, he oversaw Travis County’s $1 billion budget from 1994 to 2013. Funny thing about that job: Almost everybody inside or outside government who wanted something done in the county eventually encountered Nellis. Which made his mentoring crusade easier to navigate.

As he succeeded, people took notice of the campaign. Nellis was named Mentor of the Year for the Austin Independent School District in 2003. He also chairs the marketing committee for Central Texas Mentoring Collaborative, which combines area efforts to recruit more mentors.

When he realized that children in low-performing schools had never visited a college campus, he was instrumental making sure significantly more buses were hired for the first youngsters to engage in what became the Explore UT program. It started out 12 years ago with 20 buses and now is up to 400 from all over the state.

To give students at Allison Elementary School — his special project in Montopolis — a sense of the criminal justice system, he worked with Judge Mike Lynch and then Judge Julie Kocurek to bring fifth-graders into the courtroom to observe the sentencing of offenders and to talk with the judges and prosecutors. With Travis County Commissioner Ron Davis, he helped start a collaboration with Austin Community College to make sure high school students could earn education certificates in IT, health careers and construction trades.

Again because of his county contacts, he worked with Circuit of the Americas chief Bobby Epstein to land a Boys and Girls Club for Del Valle. During the Hurricane Katrina crisis, he served on the Central Texas Red Cross board of directors.

One of his strategies is to put people sweetly on the spot. He followed a particular youth that he mentored, whom he calls Johnny, through multiple elementary schools until he landed successfully at East Side Memorial High School.

Recently, Johnny announced: “Mr. Leroy made me tell all of Austin that I wouldn’t get into trouble.”

How does he get it all done? Credit at least in part his singular access to just about anybody of consequence from his days at Travis County.

“All the players know me,” Nellis says with typical modesty. “I hope to continue all these activities until I am physically unable to do so.”