At one time, when soon-to-be-graduating University of Missouri–St. Louis student Darryl Downing was a lead chef for a major culinary institution in St. Louis, he had roughly 300 employees under his supervision.
He knew each of their names – and all of their spouses’ and children’s names too.
“I was a mentor even then,” Downing recalls. “I wanted to know them and help them achieve whatever it was that they were after.”
And he did.
Thanks to Downing’s tutelage, a former dishwasher he supervised, who once made $7.50 an hour, is now making over $80,000 as a head chef. One of his servers, who was making $2.10, now makes over $60,000.
“Those accomplishments – their accomplishments – are still what I’m proudest of,” Downing says.
Mentoring has remained a constant throughout the interdisciplinary studies major’s life, even though many other things have shifted.
Nearly 10 years ago, change came to Downing in the form of a terrible car accident.
The collision delivered crushing damage to the left side of his body. He was told he would never walk again and left with countless questions, not the least of which being, “What now?”
“I asked myself, ‘What does a chef do, who can’t use his arm or his leg?’” Downing recalls. “I had to ask myself what else was important to me, what else I liked. When I did that, I kept coming back to people. I kept coming back to those 300 names I knew.”
Thus, in the midst of navigating his recovery and the changes to his physical abilities, Downing set out to find a new career path.
He enrolled in courses at St. Louis Community College–Florissant Valley and learned to live with constant pain while he began to work his way from a wheelchair back to walking.
He devoted himself to being a peer mentor to other African American male students, graduated with his associate degree in business and eventually committed to managing his enduring symptoms without pain medication.
It was from STLCC that he transferred to UMSL, where he says he’s since met many incredibly supportive and helpful individuals.
“I’d like to shout out Professors Emily Lane, Lauren Labat, Leighanne Heisel, Jina Yoo, Suahn Jang Cho, Yan Tian and Disability Access Services’ Tara Cramer,” says Downing. “They’ve been wonderful.”
The positive experiences Downing has had since that day on the interstate, however, have unfortunately not been the whole story – in part because there still exists in the world a set of complex and pervasive misunderstandings about the lived experience of disability.
It remains a state that anyone can enter into at any given moment, but also one that Downing says is nearly impossible for a person to understand unless they’ve been there.
As one example, he shares the fact that, at times, people have doubted the ongoing struggles he lives with every day, simply because his disability is no longer readily apparent.
“In my current state today, you wouldn’t be able to look at me and know right away what I’ve been through,” he explains. “You wouldn’t know about the pain or the ways my body can act up when it’s fatigued. Unless you shook my left hand, you wouldn’t know about the limits I still have with it. I’ve had people not believe me. Or not want to believe me.”
During one of those difficult times, Downing found himself turning to a friendly face at UMSL.
On a particularly challenging afternoon – after discovering that he needed to change his planned course of study and fielding countless rejections to the job applications he was sending out – Downing was lost on the fourth floor of Lucas Hall and wandered into the Gender Studies office by mistake.
“I met Dr. Lynn Staley. She immediately noticed something wasn’t right and invited me into her office. She was very warm, friendly and soothing,” Downing says.
Staley, an associate teaching professor in the English department, listened carefully as Downing told his story – from his former experience to his current ambitions, from his accident to the effect he felt his newly acquired disability was having on his job prospects.
“Dr. Staley suggested a total overhaul of my résumé. She took the time and worked with me and not only suggested that I speak with Assistant Dean of Students Miriam Roccia, but also that I consider a bachelor’s in interdisciplinary studies.”
Downing took all of Staley’s advice to heart and immediately put it into action. Their chance encounter and subsequent work together, along with his chat with Roccia, ultimately led him toward his current position in the Office of Student Involvement, where he works as student program manager for community service and diversity under the guidance of Assistant Director Ashlee Roberts.
“She’s honestly the best supervisor I’ve ever had,” says Downing, “and the work I get to do with the students, especially with the Associated Black Collegians, truly keeps me young. They refer to me as ‘Uncle Darryl.’”
Throughout his many responsibilities with the students – including organizing and coordinating the Alternative Spring Break trip that kept students volunteering and giving back in Indianapolis last month – Downing stays focused on the mentor role that’s always been closest to his heart.
“Why not always be thinking about bettering and helping someone else?” Downing says in answer. “What else is there really?”
Helping other college students in particular is something Downing is set on continuing to do after he graduates in May.
He’s been admitted into the master’s-level College Student Personnel Administration program at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and is waiting to hear about a potential assistantship. He ultimately aims to continue working in disability/diversity services or another student involvement role, perhaps as a counselor or adviser. And he would love to continue working at UMSL.
“In May, I’ll be the first male in my family to walk across that stage and get my bachelor’s degree,” he adds. “Helping someone else to be the first in their family? That’s everything. That’s it right there.”
Wherever his next position will be, Downing says part of leadership is sharing his story.
It’s something that doesn’t come without risks.
There’s always the fear, for example, that too much readily available information about his journey – even this UMSL Daily article shared across the wide reaches of the internet – could prevent him from employment, could cause some potential boss to make a snap decision about what he can and can’t do.
Just because it isn’t supposed to happen, doesn’t mean it doesn’t.
But Downing persists.
“Leaders have to do things others won’t and go where others won’t,” he says. “That’s what I keep in mind. I hope my sharing can help someone. I hope it touches someone. It doesn’t mean I’m perfect. There have still been moments – one just two weeks ago in fact – when I really wanted to quit. But I didn’t, because I want to see where this journey is going to take me. I’m looking for someone to see in me what I’ve always seen in my mentees.”
While Downing concedes that the work of constantly having to advocate for himself, of having a singular moment in life be the one that people always want to ask about, of always being held up as an example, can at times be utterly exhausting, he wouldn’t necessarily change it. He posits that “prayer, patience, perseverance and persistence are the prerequisites to [his] passion and purpose.”
“No, I don’t get tired of being the example,” he says. “Someone has to be. And if it helps somebody, then it can be me.”