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"This guy was truly an angel."

That's how Yolanda Farris described George Bickham, who died suddenly in January at age 46. For 24 years, Bickham was a constant presence at Perspectives in St. Louis Park, where he worked as a teacher and mentor for children at the 52-unit supportive housing campus for single mothers emerging from homelessness with dual mental health and addiction diagnoses.

It's remarkable how often colleagues and clients use that word — "angel" — to describe the impact he had on hundreds of children and their families.

Bickham's physical presence — a tall man with a deep, commanding voice — contrasted with an empathetic heart for children without positive male role models.

Farris came to live at Perspectives in 2013 with her 10-year-old son, Akili. She had spent seven months in treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. For three years, she lived in the supportive housing and now works there as a peer support specialist. Bickham was Akili's father figure: teaching in the Kids Connection program, taking children to barbecue and play basketball with St. Louis Park police every week in the summer, having rap battles with the kids, gathering donated items like bikes or helmets and counseling children on difficult topics like safe sex.

"He just took my son under his wing as soon as we walked in the door, teaching him everything," Farris said. "I can raise him the right way, but I can't teach him to be a man. That's what George did."

Colleagues describe him as a rock for children who lived through unimaginably difficult trauma. He served whatever role a child needed: a cheerleader, a shoulder to cry on, a disciplinarian who doled out tough love. And he frequently communicated with school social workers so he could nip problems in the bud.

"What I'm going to continue to hold on to from George's life, it's this unrelenting belief that I can make a difference in someone's life," said Astein Osei, superintendent of St. Louis Park schools. "He showed up every day knowing he could make a difference."

That consistency resonated. Many children in Perspectives lived chaotic lives. Bickham was nothing if not steady: calm under pressure, forever there with a word of wisdom, always showing up when needed.

Donnie Williams is now 28 and works as chef and kitchen manager at Perspectives. She went through its program from age 8 to 12.

"He was a teacher, but first he was like a father to all of us," she said. "I always wanted him to marry my mom so I could call him Dad for real."

Williams moved away and lost touch with Bickham, but when Williams' mother died a couple of years ago, Bickham appeared at the funeral — there for the children, like always.

A funeral for Bickham — survived by his son, six siblings and many more family members — will be Thursday at New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in north Minneapolis, with a viewing at 10 a.m. and funeral at 11 a.m. Among the pallbearers will be living examples of Bickham's impact, including Akili Farris, now 20, studying at Dunwoody College of Technology and working at a nursing home. The cause of death was not disclosed.

At Perspectives, colleagues and families were devastated by Bickham's sudden death. "He was supposed to be here forever," Williams said.

Bickham connected with children because he, too, had a difficult upbringing in a family with addiction issues and run-ins with the law.

"He was always talking about how it doesn't matter what background you come from, it doesn't matter what happened in your childhood," said Krystal Shatek, children's programming director at Perspectives. "If you have people who are there for you, you can make things happen in your life."

Said Jeannie Seeley-Smith, CEO of Perspectives: "We'd have a much better world if there were more Georges."