Personal Struggles Inspired Grad’s Commitment to Service

A journey of personal struggles has become a story of resilience and redemption for Whalan McDew, leading to his dedication to community service. Giving back is a way of life for the Virginia Peninsula Community College graduate.

McDew, who lives in Hampton, is the Fresh Start program coordinator with the Center for Child and Family Services. In the position for the past nine years, he has helped individuals get a second chance. He connects those emerging from incarceration with employers willing to offer opportunities. The program also assists those coming out of foster care and youth who have criminal backgrounds. While McDew’s role is about finding jobs, it is as much about rebuilding lives.

He admits his job – working to bridge the gap between past mistakes and future opportunities – presented challenges. He faced employers’ reluctance to hire individuals with criminal backgrounds.  

“In the beginning, there was a lot of push back from employers not wanting to give these second chances," he said. “It was really just explaining what I was doing, what’s going on, and showing them that the program works. I used to challenge them with a question: ‘Would you rather have this person working for you or taking from you?’”

“A lot of employers after thinking about the question would say, ‘I’d rather have them on my side.’  I think there is an understanding now that these individuals become some of their best employees,” he concluded.

 McDew notes his path was unconventional. He joined the U.S. Army fresh out of Hampton High School in 1981. After serving six years, including a four-year tour in Germany, he grappled with substance abuse for several years, ultimately ending up in prison.

Determined to make a positive turn, he enrolled at VPCC in 2014.

“When I came to (VPCC), I was one year and eight months out of prison. (The College) gave me my first glimpse of what it’s like to be on the other side," McDew reflected. "I knew what I wanted to do, but they really taught me how to do it.

“I loved the campus … the staff. I had professors who actually helped me along the way and guided me through to make sure I was successful,” he added, citing Human Services Department Chair Keisha Samuels as a favorite faculty member. 

McDew found his stride at VPCC and was among 14 students in its inaugural cohort of National Society of Leadership and Success members. He is ever grateful for the second chance afforded him at VPCC and remains connected to the College by serving on its Alumni Council.

His college choice was not by accident. McDew’s father, an Air Force veteran, set the example by enrolling at the College after military service and graduating in 1991.

“I would say he started it all. Watching him with a wife and four boys while serving in the military … being able to do everything he was supposed to do to make sure we were OK, put me in the mindset of how I wanted to be. He really shaped who I am today,” said McDew.

Focused on his mission to make a difference in the community, he finished at VPCC with a substance use disorders counselor’s assistant certificate and an associate degree in human services in 2015 and 2016, respectively.

McDew has a clear vision for the future. He aims to become a licensed clinical social worker and establish a transitional home for individuals reentering society from prison or treatment. Fueled by that ambition, he finished at Old Dominion University in December 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in human services and counseling as well as a second substance use disorders counselor’s assistant certificate.

Leveraging his personal experiences and professional training, McDew is deeply engaged in the community, serving on multiple councils and committees, including the Newport News Sheriff's Office Reentry Council and Employment Committee, Hampton Reentry Council, and Virginia Department of Corrections Reentry Council.  Despite a full roster of affiliations, he is also president of Do Gooders of Hampton Roads, chairman of Pretty in Pink Women’s Empowerment Organization and president of the Shell Road Association.

His dedication reaped numerous accolades. McDew was named Citizen of the Year by Omega Psi Phi fraternity, received a Community Heroes award from Hilton Garden Inn Suffolk Riverfront, and was recognized as a Community Leader by Delta Sigma Theta sorority, among others. He was selected 2024 Missionary of the Year at his church – Gethsemane Baptist Church in Newport News.

While McDew gives his father, Abner E. McDew, a lot of credit, his support network includes many others, especially his late mother, Delois V. McDew. He said she instilled compassion and empathy.

“I know I have my mother’s heart. My mother always took care of everybody. Our house was the neighborhood house. She fed everybody. She did it all. I know I get most of my passion from her when it comes to how I feel about people,” he mused. 

Amid triumphs and challenges, including a recent health setback, McDew also finds support in his partner of many years, Sunda Lynch.
            "She’s the caregiver and a true blessing," McDew emphasized, acknowledging Lynch’s invaluable role as she also helps him care for his ailing grandson while also taking care of her mother.

That health setback aside, McDew will stay committed to advocacy and service. He is living proof there is always hope for those seeking redemption.