Erik Pantaleo, a 24-year-old living in Shelbyville, spends his days working at a sawmill in the nearby town of Edina. Unlike many other 24-year-olds, he owns his home — something he never thought was possible growing up in difficult circumstances.

Pantaleo and three younger siblings were born in Guatemala. His biological parents were mostly absent from their lives and the kids were eventually placed in an orphanage.

The siblings were brought to the United States by American foster parents when Pantaleo was 6 years old. After dealing with physical, mental and sexual abuse from their first foster parents, an investigation was launched and the kids were split up and sent to different foster homes.

Erik and his siblings were eventually adopted by the Pantaleo family.

Despite having an adoptive family that cared for him, the abuse experienced as a young child still weighed on his daily life into his adolescence.

“From there, I just kind of got out of control,” Pantaleo said. “My adopted parents didn’t really know what to do, so they sent away to get the help I needed.”

When he was about 12 years old, Pantaleo was sent to Boys and Girls Town of Missouri in St. James, now known as Great Circle, which offers group home living and residential treatment to troubled youth. It took six years to complete the program, but after a lot of personal growth, Pantaleo credits the Great Circle program for the second chance he needed.

“It was kind of a restart button,” he said.

 

Great Circle provides behavioral health services to children and families. It helped 39,481 people in 2018 through its facilities and community centers throughout the state, said Jessica Luster, director of residential treatment services for Great Circle’s Central Region. That year, the program also housed 2,074 children who were in residential treatment or group living.

Great Circle receives community support through donations to the Heart of Missouri United Way. In 2017, that support totaled $18,809 toward the agency’s overall budget of $71.9 million.

Donors can designate their United Way contributions directly to Great Circle. For those who want to do more, Great Circle is in need of money to pay for housing costs, food and repairs at its facilities. With the holidays around the corner, the program also relies almost solely on donations to provide gifts to the children housed in its facilities, Luster said.

Luster worked closely with Pantaleo for three years. He had one of the most inspiring stories from the program, she said. Eventually, he was able to overcome his past trauma and use it to better himself.

“He had some pretty significant trauma, neglect and abuse in his history,” Luster said. “It was very painful for him. It went from where his past owned him, then he made that transition to where he faced those fears and was able to own his past.”

Pantaleo said he was resistant and unwilling to allow the program to help in the early days.

“I took me a while to open up,” Pantaleo said. “Since I was a young kid, I always had different therapists … picking at me and trying to crack in. I never really liked the forcefulness of the situation, so I would shut down.”

Eventually therapists encouraged him to talk but were not as forceful, and he realized that the people in the program truly wanted to help.

“This group of individuals showed us that they did care and they weren’t going to give up on us. And they kept their word,” he said.

Pantaleo began to spend time at the Boys and Girls Town ranch in Rolla. The ranch organized a hiking trip up a 14,000-foot-tall mountain in Colorado, which greatly affected his personal outlook.

“That was a big step,” he said. “I kind of gained that first step in forgiving myself … it helped me open up and move forward.”

The purpose of the hiking trip was to show the residents that if they could climb the mountain, they could overcome other obstacles in their life, Pantaleo said. Eventually, he was moved to the Great Circle facility in Columbia, a transition living center.

“At first, you’re in lockdown,” Pantaleo said. “Once they feel you are mature enough and can control your actions, then you get moved to the [transitional living program], which is like a bridge between being in the program and being out in the real world.”

Pantaleo decided he wanted to give back to the program a year before he graduated high school. At the age of 17, he spoke about his experiences in Great Circle at the Diamond Night fundraising gala.

“It was kind of a thank you to them and trying to give back to the program ... saying, ‘You are the reason I’m here. The reason why I’m able to stand in front of you all and give this speech,’” he said.

Since that first speech, Pantaleo has given multiple presentations about his life experiences, including at another fundraising gala in October.

Nearly every time Pantaleo gives a speech, he brings the people in the room to tears, Luster said.

“One of the most beautiful things I witnessed was when he started giving speeches,” Luster said. “He would give his story and then talk about his achievements. It became very powerful for him. That was the greatest evolution I saw.”

Shortly after completing Great Circle and graduating high school, Pantaleo joined AmeriCorps, a program similar to the Peace Corps, but within the U.S. He was initially placed in Sacramento, California, but traveled to several areas throughout California and Washington, he said.

One of the most gratifying things Pantaleo did while in AmeriCorps was working on projects for Habitat for Humanity, he said.

“I absolutely loved it … because you could see the progress that you’re doing,” Pantaleo said. “If we had stayed there one more week, we would have completed three houses. … You could see the difference that we, as a group, were making.”

For his final mission in AmeriCorps, Pantaleo was assigned to a special youth camp in Washington. Due to his past, working there was like a fantasy.

“I grew up knowing that the world was bad and horrible, but that special youth camp with literally a fairy tale to me,” he said.

Since completing his missions in AmeriCorps, Pantaleo found a job working at the sawmill near his home in Shelbyville. He eventually wants to work somewhere where he can give back and help people, which he found funny considering his aversion to volunteering early on in the Great Circle program.

“I definitely want to do a job that benefits people,” Pantaleo said.

For now, Pantaleo said he is focused on saving up for a car so he can get more experience driving. Now that he has aged out of being a standard AmeriCorps member, his main option would be applying to be a team leader, which involves frequently driving vans.

Considering how the program helped put Pantaleo on the right track, he said he urges anyone who finds themselves in that situation to embrace the program.

“If you have the opportunity to go into the program instead of being locked up… you should definitely take advantage of the program,” Pantaleo said. “It can help you step out of the situation that you’re in and find inner peace.”

ecliburn@moberlymonitor.com