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Vans Nelson’s Passion for Service led him to Focus on Your Future

By Raj Prashad

Vans Nelson, Vice President of Restaurant Excellence for Arby’s, has always wanted to help others. As a child, while his father served in the Army, Vans lived abroad and experienced different cultures and beliefs; it taught him the power of listening and seeing what life was like in someone else’s shoes. And when he went to college, he pursued a degree that would help him bring to life his passion for serving others: management.

“Developing talent and getting the most out of people is what fuels me to this day.” Vans Nelson, Vice President of Restaurant Excellence, Arby’s

Arby's Foundation Vans Nelson

Vans Nelson volunteers by painting a classroom with the Arby’s Foundation.

After graduating from college, Vans spent more than two decades in leadership roles with various restaurant brands, beverage companies, and non-profit organizations. Away from the office, he became engaged in the community, coaching youth sports and volunteering with non-profit organizations in the Atlanta area.

Along the way, Vans recognized that teens in his community weren’t being given the tools or experiences necessary for them to thrive once they left high school. That’s why, in 2014, he launched his own non-profit: Focus on Your Future. The organization provides youth experiences through leadership development, exposure to diverse professions and industries, and college tours.

“We created the program for 13 to 18-year-old teens. We first find out what they’re passionate about and aim to provide direction and clarity on a plan for when they get out of school,” Vans said.

Leadership Development

Teens are challenged to work on communication skills, personal development and responsibility as well as accountability.

“We require participants to stand up, engage, make eye contact and speak in every class. We work to build their self confidence and try to develop communication skills, whether it’s talking with their parents or preparing for an interview,” Vans said.

“We also work with their parents to given teens responsibilities around their homes and ensuring that the teens are held accountable. We help them recognize that being accountable goes a long way.”

Exposure to Diverse Professions and Industries

Focus on Your Future exposes teens to industries and professions they may not have known about or had experience with. The organization brings in professionals from the community and sets up immersive workshops, such as a mock trial with lawyers or trading stocks with financial professionals.

“To get kids to really engage, we have to introduce information in a relatable way,” Vans said.

Facilitating College Tours

Through Focus on Your Future, Vans works to coordinate annual college tours, where teens are guided through the transition from high school to college.

“It’s hard to imagine going to school somewhere until you can see and experience the campus. We take our students to State Universities, Private Colleges, HBCUs and Technical Colleges so they can experience the schools themselves,” Vans said.

“We go through the admissions process, take campus tours and eat in the cafeteria. We discuss the grades and requirements to get in to school, so kids aren’t blindly looking at colleges. At that point, they can set goals because they have everything they need to succeed.”

Focus on Your Future visits Florida State University.

“There’s nothing more gratifying than seeing kids who are in this program succeed. Being able to have a small impact on someone is an enormous blessing,” Vans said.