When Zach Garza (’04) asked the 65 boys he coached on a junior high football team how many lived in a home with no father, 45 raised their hands.
He wasn’t too surprised. Zach, too, had grown up with no father. He had gotten lucky when several older men intervened in his life, steering him away from the dead end he was headed toward. The question on his mind was who would teach these 45 boys, and others just like them, how to be a man.
“We want to be the answer to that question,” Zach said.
The “we” Zach refers to is the staff, volunteers, and supporters of Forerunner Mentoring, a nonprofit that Zach and Jonathan Hafemann founded in Lake Highlands in 2011.
Zach’s success story – from a boy left fatherless without positive male role models in his life, to a man with a vision and heart for helping boys just like himself – has the fingerprints of Abilene Christian University all over it.
Zach, who grew up in Richardson, earned a degree in education from ACU in 2005. He taught health and coached football for eight years at Lake Highlands Junior High School. But long before Zach walked the stage in Moody Coliseum, ACU already was influencing his life.
His involvement with the university began when Zach was in high school, but his story began when he was in junior high school and his father left him and his mother to fend for themselves.
His mother worked hard to provide for the two of them, but that left little time for a close relationship with Zach.
“My mom had a hard time,” he said. “I felt like I was on my own.”
From anger to peace
Left to himself, Zach was headed in the wrong direction. He was doing anything to get attention, usually the wrong things. He was hurt. He was angry. He intentionally cut himself off from his father, who was by that time divorced from his mother.
“I had put my trust in someone,” he said, “and I had got hurt.”
Zach’s success story, from a boy left fatherless without positive male role models in his life, to a man with a vision and heart for helping boys just like himself, has the fingerprints of ACU all over it.
But several other “someones” he could trust were just ahead for Zach. He heard about the leadership camps held at ACU each summer through the Church of Christ he attended in high school.
There he met Bob Strader (’76), who was in charge of the camps. He was the first “someone” Zach had been looking for, someone he could trust without fear of being hurt.
“Whenever I went to these camps,” Zach said, “I felt welcomed, loved, cared for.”
Zach even became a camp counselor. When Zach enrolled as a student at ACU, Bob invited him to a Bible study called “Father Heart of God.”
Zach began to cry. His own “father” experience hadn’t been that good. He hadn’t dealt with the hurt and anger inside. He felt embarrassed and left. But Bob found him.
“He just affirmed me and encouraged me,” Zach said.
He also told Zach that he had to deal with the hurt and anger inside or it would kill him. Zach’s life didn’t change that minute, but God was working on him through Bob Strader.
The next two sets of ACU fingerprints on Zach’s life were those of Max Lucado (’77) and Dan Niederhofer (’83). Bob helped Zach get a job at Lucado’s Oak Hills Church in San Antonio after Zach graduated from ACU.
A longing only God could fulfill
He spent two years working there with Niederhofer, the youth minister. It was during those two years, Zach said, that the Lord really got his attention. He had found a safe place and began to realize that the Lord was what was missing in his life – and that the Lord was the only one who could fulfill his longing.
After two years at Oak Hills, Zach took a teaching job at Lake Highlands Junior High. In the summer of 2009, he attended a discipleship course in Nashville called The Caleb Company and there he found two more sets of ACU fingerprints – those of founder Don Finto (’50) and Steve Allen (’88), director of training. Both are ACU graduates.
“What Bob started in 2004,” Zach said, “Don and Steve really finished in 2009.”
Allen recalled meeting Zach for the first time in the summer of 2009. He had come to Nashville with several friends and all were transformed by their summer experience, Allen said.
“They really had a phenomenal summer,” Allen said.
Part of the focus of Caleb Company is “identification and destiny,” which includes writing a vision statement during the summer course that states purpose and vision. Zach recalled writing that he wanted to forgive his father and restore a relationship with him. The result was amazing. He learned how to forgive and today has a “pretty good” relationship with his father that he still is working on.
“When I forgave him,” Zach said, “the Lord got rid of all this anger and unforgiveness I had in my heart.”
Today, Zach can be cited as a success story by people who intervened in his life, many with ties to ACU. Besides running his ministry, Zach is married to Sara (Potter ’09) Garza and is the father of two children, ages 2 and 1.
Allen, director of the training program that Zach went through in Nashville, saw the potential leadership abilities in Zach. Because of his height and athletic build, Zach is a magnet for young boys who hope to grow up to look like him, Allen said, but once they get to know him, they see his heart and want to emulate that quality.
Those attributes – natural attraction, leadership abilities and a heart for the Lord – make the grown up Zach the person that the little boy Zach missed out on in his early life. Today, through his ministry, Zach is putting that person into the lives of other young boys who also are missing out.
“He’s an amazing man,” Allen said. “He’s a leader.”