South County

Santa Barbara Foundation Person of Year John Daly Creates Family Bond with Those He Mentors

By Noozhawk staff writer Jade Martinez-Pogue.

Founder of Key Class recognized for work helping thousands of high school students learn life skills needed to create a lifetime of opportunities.

Mentoring young men for more than a decade, John Daly — a father of five — found an extended family in the lives he helps shape.

“I have five kids of my own, but it’s just a whole different thing to have these kids that I mentor,” Daly told Noozhawk. “With your own kids you know you’re providing everything for them and you start teaching them when they’re babies.

“But when you’re coming into a boy’s life who maybe has never had a father figure, to be with them and have them trust me and believe in me, it’s this overwhelming feeling. They’re family.”

Daly retired from being president of his international event company, John Daly Inc. International, 11 years ago and was ready to take six months off to just lie on the couch.

Considering himself a workaholic, he began working for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) in Santa Barbara County just months into his break, sparking a passion that would lead to more than a decade of mentorship.

Daly was having dinner with one of the young men he was paired with when he noticed a lack of table manners and thought “you know, I can teach you something,” he said.

“On the way home from that dinner, I realized that I was kind of living in this bubble where I just assumed people knew this stuff,” he recalled. “I saw that there was a big gap in kids not knowing only how to eat, how to shake a hand, but just these life skills in general, how to write a résumé, a cover letter, how to interview.

“I woke up my wife that night and I said ‘I think I decided what I want to do for the rest of my life. I’m going to give back to these kids.’”

He started teaching mostly at-risk youth who went into the Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Fighting Back Mentor Program and was brought in by local high schools when wind got out about his work, he said.

Daly serves as the president of The Key Class, a program that gives students the knowledge they need in subjects they care about in order to be successful in their dreams. He spent six months writing the curriculum for the course that is taught in all Santa Barbara Unified School District high schools, he said.

“Before I knew it I had a lot of different places I was teaching,” Daly said, adding that he was teaching up to 8,000 students before the coronavirus pandemic hit.

“I just absolutely love working with the kids, just to watch something click and see them light up because they’ve got it. And I love knowing that I have helped them.”

Daly has personally mentored around 15 young men in Santa Barbara County, nine of whom play an active role in his life to this day, he said.

“My children all accept these guys as part of the family,” he said. “They’re my kids, too.”

John Daly and Judith Staplemann were selected as the 78th People of the Year and were honored at a small celebration on October 6, 2021. Photo: (Left) Jackie Carrera, President & CEO of SBF, John Daly, and Judith Staplemann.

The best experience Daly had while mentoring was when he was working with a young man, Junior, who was a “real tough, rough kid” who didn’t want anything to do with him, he said.

“He thought I was just this guy who would come in who didn’t know anything about his life whatsoever and didn’t know about hardship,” he added.

Daly told Junior his story, about how he grew up in a wealthy home in Upstate New York but how his family lost everything. He told him about how his family moved to “the ghetto” in Florida in 1957 and how he would make the family dinners while his brother picked his mom up from work on his bicycle because they couldn’t afford a car or bus fare.

“I told this boy all of that and he said, ‘Oh, wow, man, you’re a homie! You know what all of this is about,” Daly said.

Junior ended up landing a job with the help of Daly’s mentorship, but the two then fell out of contact for years.

“Then one day I’m driving up the coast and the sunset is absolutely beautiful and the phone rings in the car, I answer and it was Junior,” Daly remembered. “He said, ‘Well, I just called you to thank you, because you saved my life.’”

Junior was about to be shipped off as a Navy Seal and said that Daly was the man he wanted to call and thank before he left, Daly said.

“That brought on all the tears,” he added.

Daly is often stopped in the street by people telling him that they got a job because of him, he said.

Daly gives his mentees a stable father figure and commits himself to help make their lives better, he said.

The one rule Daly has with all of his mentees is that they cannot lie to him.

“If you lie, you’re out,” he said. “If I know the truth, I’ll do anything. I’ll help you, I just have to know the truth.”

Daly was named as one of the Santa Barbara Foundation’s 2021 People of the Year for his commitment to mentorship and service to the community. He has served on the boards of United Way of Santa Barbara County, Partners in Education, CASA, the Anti-Defamation League and CADA’s Fighting Back Mentor Program.

“I think that mentoring is one of the best things that anybody could do,” Daly said. “It requires very little time and the rewards are just tremendous. They’re absolutely tremendous.”

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