Every Wednesday afternoon, Tony Lambers spends an hour “just kicking it” with junior high students. Dressed in a hoodie, hightop sneakers and baggy jeans, he mentors ninth-graders in teacher Shantel VanderGalien’s remedial reading class. They are eager to talk to him about school, their home lives, goals and dreams.
Lambers is a local real-estate agent who’s had top sales for more than a decade. But he’s also an ex-convict who once performed a string of armed robberies including at a Wyoming gas station.
Now, Lambers is giving back to his hometown with food, basketball, kind words and a scholarship named after Richard Pullen, or “RP”, a former Wyoming teacher whom Lambers credits for his every success.
“I’m trying to be the glimmer of hope. I feel like lot of these kids are going through the exact same things I’ve gone through. I know that once hope is lost that you’ve pretty much lost everything else,” said Lambers, who now lives in Norton Shores.
“I think if (students) see where I am today, coming from where I came from, that it will add some merit to what I say. I think a lot of teachers have the right intentions, but they can’t show that they’ve walked that walk or understand those movements, and I can.”
In the classroom, Lambers sat down next to ninth-grader Christian Navar, who had some personal issues on his mind, and began a conversation. “He listens,” Christian said. “Nobody really listens. Having someone to talk to feels pretty good.”
Just Takes One Who Cares
When Lambers talks about his childhood, he describes frequent bouts of homelessness during which he bounced between friends’ houses. He had an estranged relationship with his divorced parents and no structure. Pullen, an English teacher and basketball coach at the former Wyoming Park High School (where Wyoming Junior High is now located), took him under his wing beginning freshman year. Pullen died of cancer in 2015, at age 69.
“He was like my father. He was just really gentle with me. We connected right away,” Lambers said. “At that point, he was someone I could talk to every day about the issues I was having. He didn’t judge me; he gave me solid advice and he walked with me as much as he could.”
Pullen gave Lambers food, money and clothes. He opened the school in the morning so he could shower in the locker room.
But despite Pullen’s influence, Lambers, who was in the class of 1995, ended up in jail his senior year. “I did a series of armed robberies, and the one I got caught on was the Speedway (at 28th Street and Byron Center Avenue).”
It was the beginning of a seven-year stint in prison.
“It was wintertime. I was hungry and cold and kind of fed up and mad,” he said. “I think it happened out of anger more than anything else. I was mad at the world. I felt like I had been cheated.”
But Pullen stayed by his side. “RP walked with me through my entire prison sentence. He told me to call him every day… I called him every day for all those years. He sent me Christmas cards of the family and let me know what was going on in the world… He answered every time.”
“I think if (students) see where I am today, coming from where I came from, that it will add some merit to what I say.” – Tony Lambers, Wyoming graduate and ex-con turned district advocate
He also taught Lambers what no one else did. “What I learned from him was how to be a father, a man of the house, man of a situation,” said Lambers, who has a 22-year-old son and a 5-year-old son. “When I got out (of prison) I was somewhat institutionalized from being gone so long, and he really rode me to not let that take over my life.
“Everything I am right now is from RP.”
After he was released, Lambers worked at a factory for five years until he was laid off and had to find new employment. He noticed a job posting at a mortgage company for $13 an hour, and discovered it was actually 100-percent commission-based. Lambers was about to walk away when Pullen stepped in and encouraged him to give it a three-month chance.
That was life-changing.
“I took off in my sales my first week and I’ve never looked back,” said Lambers, who eventually switched from mortgages to real estate. “Never in a million years would I think I’d be where I am right now. I knew that I had potential to be someone, but I didn’t know what that would be.”
Enter the Mentor
After a few years of earning good money, Pullen had another message that stuck with Lambers. “He said, ‘One day you have to find something that matters more than the money. Make the money so you can live, but find something else to do with it that will make you happy.'”
A week after Pullen’s death, Lambers realized what that could be. He dreamed he was teaching at Wyoming Junior High and was contributing financially to the school.
“That was RP’s soul talking to me — his last piece of guidance.”
So Lambers started the RP Scholarship Fund. Through his own regular contributions he hopes to grow the fund to $50,000 by the end of 2017 and establish an endowment, and continue his own contributions. The scholarship will be split between Wyoming Public Schools and Muskegon Public Schools.
“What I’m trying to look for is the person like me that needed a chance,” he said. “I think that, when I was that age, if someone would have told me there was money available for me to go to college and somebody cared about me going I would have put a little bit more effort into it… College when I was growing up was just a dream.”
Lambers also helps lead Hoop Heaven, an after-school basketball program that runs out of Elevation Church, and annually makes large contributions to the Wyoming Public Schools Thanksgiving food drive.
VanderGalien invited Lambers to become a regular presence in her class. “I’m always a proponent of having more adults in the classroom to mentor and give one-on-one time,” she said. “It’s also powerful for boys to have adult male role models.”
Lambers’ story is powerful, she said, but he also helps students keep on track academically and has touched on topics like entrepreneurship and how to react to negative messages in hip-hop culture.
Ninth-grader Lio Mathias said it’s been a pleasure to get to know Lambers. “He cares most about us and what we can do with our lives. Many of us have been through similar things.”
Added Wellington Jaramillo: “He always tells us to not do bad things, to never give up and to follow your dreams.”