Dennis De Leon drove by the office three times before working up the nerve to step inside.
The implications of that decision – choosing to engage the Literacy Council of Grand Island – would not only alter his life in a profound way, it would ripple to impact many more.
“It’s really important we try to help others,” he says. “I think, in life, we are here to serve.”
A maintenance worker by trade, De Leon immigrated to the United States from Guatemala in 2003. After spending five years in Omaha and some time in Austin, Texas, he settled in Grand Island. And then it hit him – a sense that he was watching too much TV and wasting his life.
“I wanted to do more things,” he says.
So the self-professed “shy person,” with a limited grasp of English, stopped circling and connected with the Literacy Council, an outreach funded in part by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Nebraska. As fate would have it, he was paired with volunteer tutor Densel Rasmussen, longtime business and community leader.
“We had a special connection the very first time we met,” De Leon recalls.
De Leon’s English language literacy quickly improved as the two worked together week-after-week. But to hear him tell it, that’s the least of what Rasmussen taught him.
“I was learning how to be a good human being,” De Leon says. “Densel was involved in so many things. He helped so many people. If you ever met him, for sure, he would change your life.”
Rasmussen would come to say the same of De Leon and even consider him family.
“He called me son,” De Leon says. “He was a father to me.”
In 2014, Rasmussen was diagnosed with ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease. De Leon started going to Rasmussen’s house every Wednesday night to eat, study, contemplate life and watch “Modern Family.” As Rasmussen’s condition deteriorated, De Leon moved into his friend and mentor’s house to assist with his care.
“When he couldn’t talk anymore, he bought this computer that let him type with his eyes. The first thing he said was, ‘I know it sounds like a machine, but it’s coming from my heart.’”
Rasmussen died in November 2017.
Today, De Leon carries on his friend and mentor’s legacy of service. He’s an avid volunteer with Habitat for Humanity and a dedicated tutor with the Literacy Council of Grand Island.
“We know that a small investment in literacy education today provides huge dividends for our community tomorrow,” says Kurt Stoppkotte, executive director. “Densel made that investment in Dennis, and we are all benefiting from that investment today.”
De Leon teaches weekly group literacy classes for Spanish speakers. (The majority of current students are refugees and immigrants.)
“I remember praying in church one day that I wanted to inspire someone like Densel inspired me,” De Leon says. “A few minutes after I left the church, a lady texted me saying, ‘Thank you so much for the class. We are really enjoying it, and you are an inspiration to me.’ I almost cried.”
It’s not unusual for students and tutors to establish strong connections, Stoppkotte says. But the bond between Rasmussen and De Leon was truly remarkable: “Densel would be incredibly proud of how Dennis continues to share his commitment to helping others.”
De Leon believes that too: “I feel like I am making him proud.”