Neal St. Anthony
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Shakeel Nelson, who works for North Memorial Health, and Don MacPherson, a small-business man, have been “brothers’’ for 17 years.

The long-standing relationship of Nelson, 25, of north Minneapolis and MacPherson, 51, who grew up on the Iron Range, has been good for them, our community and our economy.

And in recent years it has spawned something that once was only a dream for Nelson.

With support from MacPherson and a growing list of other supporters, Nelson, on top of a full workweek at North Memorial, is the volunteer CEO of Inner City Ducks, which includes 60-plus mostly North Side middle school boys and girls from Olson Middle School and neighboring Creekview Park.

They play on sports teams and participate in other activities.

They also learn about the world of work and careers from caring adults.

Many of the Ducks hail from single-parent families. In short, they are like Nelson.

His loving mom signed him up for a matching adult with Big Brothers Big Sisters Twin Cities (BBBS) in 2003, when he was 8.

Nelson’s dad was in prison.

“I don’t feel like Ducks is a job,” said Nelson, who is a coach, friend and mentor to many of the kids. “It’s a calling.

“This area, the park, is where I grew up. I just want to help kids. There’s a lack of [positive] male role models.”

Nelson charges every Duck family up to $90 for an AAU sports uniform, a warm-up suit and a travel bag.

“Everything that they pay for they keep,” he said.

Everything else is free, including weekend tournaments, travel, field trips and, most importantly, visits with caring, successful adults — who wield briefcases, tool belts or buses — and can tell the young people their story and what the right stuff takes.

“What Shakeel is building without pay at 25 is remarkable,” said MacPherson. “He is dedicated to giving back and helping break the cycle of poverty and issues boys have who grow up without positive role models.

Nelson is a confident, well-spoken young man with a winning smile who was a student-athlete at Washburn High School.

He also recognized early that he wasn’t going to the National Basketball Association.

He made the most of his personality and skills to get a good job, be a good citizen and devote his free time to a higher purpose.

“I work so I can invest in my business,” said Nelson of Inner City Ducks. It’s being reconstituted as a nonprofit, eligible for tax-deductible contributions.

“I want to see these kids graduate from high school and go on to successful lives,” Nelson said.

MacPherson also loves sports, including watching Nelson at Washburn a few years ago.

He played basketball in Germany for a year after Bemidji State University. After returning home he got a job as a temporary employee at a service that did surveys for Ameriprise Financial.

He and two acquaintances decided to start Modern Survey, which focused on employee surveys for employers.

They sold the business in 2016 for a pretty penny to Chicago-based Aon Hewitt, the huge risk management and human resources company. MacPherson left Aon after a couple of years to start another company, 12 Geniuses, a consulting firm to entrepreneurs and managements.

MacPherson said his relationship with Nelson, which waned a bit after Nelson graduated high school, on balance has been a tremendous joy and learning experience.

“That has been the incredible benefit to me,” MacPherson said. “I’ve seen some of his family’s struggles and their incredible love and support for each other. He has helped me become a more empathetic, understanding person.

“There was a period of about two or three years when we didn’t talk or see each other very much. After high school and before he got really involved in youth sports. I tried to remind him that I was there for him, but I think he wanted to find his own way.

“About two or three years ago, he started getting in touch more. He would ask my advice on things … like financial planning, relationships, searching for jobs.

“We became a lot closer again. Since April, we’ve been meeting almost weekly. We do a lot of marketing together for the Inner City Ducks and go on visits with businesses to tell them what we are doing. I evaluate Shakeel after each meeting, so he continues to improve his pitch.”

MacPherson and Nelson will be honored at the April annual gala of Big Brothers Big Sisters, which is moving to an expanded headquarters in north Minneapolis.

“Shakeel and Don are something,” said Jennifer Severson, director of marketing and recruitment at BBBS.

“Shakeel is doing the right things to make his neighborhood a great place to grow up. Shakeel has spoken at our board meetings. He’s dynamic and energetic.”

BBBS matches 3,780 pairs of “big” and “little” brothers and sisters in the Twin Cities area.

There’s a waiting list of 460 kids. Mostly young guys waiting to make friends with a big brother.

More information is at: www.bigstwincities.org/

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.