Durham County

Wheeler: Durham lawyer named to Ten Outstanding Young Americans list

Burgetta Eplin Wheeler

Chandler Vatavuk is a uniquely American name, one that melds the maiden name of a mother who traces her Southern roots to the 1600s with the surname of a father whose Croatian parents arrived through Ellis Island after the first World War.

Fittingly, this melting pot moniker belongs to a young man who has made bettering his country and community his calling.

Vatavuk, a Durham lawyer and native, has been named one of the Jaycees’ Ten Outstanding Young Americans of 2012. Previous winners of the TOYA award, which recognizes those ages 18 to 40 who exemplify the best our country offers, have included John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton.

In his 30 years, Vatavuk has spent thousands of hours volunteering with more than 20 agencies, boards and committees, but it was his work as an advocate for at-risk youth that the Jaycees specifically honored.

It’s a passion he’s plied since the tender age of 10, when his elementary school principal asked him to tutor his peers during Saturday morning reading sessions at an inner-city community center.

“Seeing a kid get through a tricky passage, the satisfaction that child had when he found out he could do it, it was amazing and heartening to me,” says Vatavuk, an N.C. Central University law graduate. “What we appreciate are the things we struggle to achieve.”

‘A hard day’s work’

As a student at Jordan High School in the late 1990s, Vatavuk worked with the Durham Public Schools superintendent, traveling the state to promote dropout-prevention strategies. He also participated in the county’s teen court program, which gives youthful offenders a second chance.

That minor, first-time offenses can leave life-long damage by keeping people from getting jobs riled Vatavuk several times during an interview. It’s an anger he has channeled into a solo law practice dedicated to representing the indigent.

Vatavuk is a strong believer in second chances – especially for those who didn’t have a supportive family like he did.

An only child, Vatavuk grew up on a farm long in the family of his mother, Betsy, a nationally recognized volunteer herself. In 2007, she received an Outstanding Lifetime Volunteer award from the 4-H.

“They’d put me to work picking beetles off plants, picking strawberries, raspberries,” Vatavuk says. “That was a great experience. I got an appreciation for a hard day’s work.”

Taking nothing for granted

His late father, William, was an EPA scientist who also spent a lot of time mentoring children through 4-H.

“We taught writing classes. We did a summer camp on our farm,” Vatavuk says. “Seeing trees and grass – these kids growing up in inner-cities, they see cement everywhere – it was amazing seeing their faces. So much of life is the small things we don’t think about.”

It’s a childhood that Vatavuk doesn’t take for granted, especially as he has witnessed in schools and in court the wreckage of poor parenting.

“I think about all these kids who had a parent who put their lives first over their child’s life,” Vatavuk says. “Who you are today is made by who you knew, by parents and families. We’re disadvantaged from Day One without that foundation.”

Instead of throwing up our hands at what can seem the sorry state of society today, Vatavuk urges his fellow Americans to use them to patch up the cracked foundations of those around us.

“When I think of all the people who came before us in the nation’s history to get where we are today, I think about what it would take to go further,” he says. “If people look for the void in their community and fill it, even if it’s just an hour a week, our nation would be a so much better place.”

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