It's a typical morning for Gino Nelson, a friend, mentor and father figure to hundreds of Twin Citians in need.

First stop is a Burnsville apartment that he just found for a Vietnam War veteran, staying with the man through the housing inspection and arranging a furniture dropoff. Next, he stops by the Minneapolis home of a disabled man to check on his application for disability payments. Then he heads to St. Stephen's Human Services, where he helps people in its homeless shelter find a place to live and start a new life. 

For the Bronx transplant -- who also corresponds with dozens of men in prison, serves as a role model for many children in need and organizes volunteer opportunities for guys looking to build a future -- it's all in a day's work.

But for the folks at the McKnight Foundation, Nelson is a man who has gone above and beyond the call of duty to help some of Minnesota's most vulnerable citizens. The foundation awarded him one of its top human services awards last month, a $10,000 nod of appreciation for showing how one man can make a difference.

"He's a one-man big brother operation in the Twin Cities and has been since 1987," said Nancy Galas, a longtime friend and Minneapolis block club leader who nominated Nelson for the award. "He has the amazing ability to transform lives and drastically change the trajectory of his clients' lives." 

Andrew Moore of Minneapolis agrees. On Wednesday, he and two men who have been taken under Nelson's wing did some volunteer cleanup work at a Burnsville soccer club. Volunteerism, Nelson believes, is good for the soul and can lead to jobs and self-esteem.

"If Gino hadn't been in my life, my kids wouldn't be the kind of kids they are today, and I wouldn't be the kind of father I am," said Moore, whom Nelson has mentored for nearly 15 years. "He's like my guardian angel. But I kind of thought my guardian angel would be a girl."

Unlikely mentor

Nelson never set forth to become a one-man social service agency. The kid from the Bronx, whose family immigrated from Jamaica, enrolled in the University of Wisconsin-Superior to play football in the 1980s. He earned a degree in communications, but his goal was to play pro football.

When that didn't happen, Nelson felt like a man without an identity. But after moving to the Twin Cities, he stumbled into a job helping people with mental health problems. Then he worked with homeless teens. Then Catholic Charities. He learned he had a knack for relating to people and helping many get back on their feet.

Now 52, he is a housing specialist for St. Stephen's. That means scouring the city and suburbs for housing for guys who often have criminal records, mental health problems, bad credit histories and other red flags for landlords.

But Nelson's job doesn't stop there. He's an unofficial furniture specialist, taxicab, bureaucratic tape-cutter and a lifeline for guys in prison who know few people in the outside world who are clean.

Nelson had several letters in his van from prisoners, telling him they wanted to meet him when they were released.

"I have been lost for so long," wrote one man serving time in the state prison at Moose Lake. "Thank you for being there for me."

Nelson has a real gift for connecting with folks who are often off the grid, said Mikkel Beckman, executive director of St. Stephen's Human Services. He's able to unearth housing for people who have "impossible budgets," thanks to his persistence.

"He probably handles double the cases that most people do," Beckman said. "He's particularly gifted with people with mental health issues. He has a natural leadership ability that other staff lean on. Day in and day out. He's been at this a long time."

What motivates him

Nelson has "been at it a long time" because he believes it's his calling. While he could earn a far fatter paycheck doing something else, he said the internal rewards are priceless.

"Any day I can help someone is a good day," Nelson said.

Plus, he is honored to be a role model for his children and the other children he has mentored.

"I walk in the door every day, and my kids say, 'Who did you help today?'" said Nelson, who lives in Lakeville with his wife, Stacey, and two sons, ages 7 and 10.

"My son in the back will answer for me: 'Those who will help themselves!'"

And those lucky folks often get a friend for life. Two of the three men Nelson recruited for the volunteer job -- cleaning sideboards on an indoor soccer field -- had known him for more than a decade. He doesn't just find people an apartment and hand over the key. He stays in their worlds as needed.

For Murien Jeffers, the Vietnam vet who found an apartment through Nelson, that means having someone willing to lend him some furniture until his arrives. It means having someone available to drive him to a medical appointment, set up volunteer work or just check in.

Multiply Jeffers by dozens of other folks in need, and you get a glimpse of Nelson's universe.

"It's never-ending," Nelson acknowledged. "Some days are tougher than others. But there's nothing else I'd rather be doing."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511