As the young man entered the cavernous room of the campus’ main building, his eyes searched for his mom. Seeing her, a smile instantly softened 24-year-old Norman Irving’s face as he and Susan Gethin, 59, embraced before sitting to catch up.

He’d earned his diploma, he told her, and had gotten coveted additional training. She told him about a job that’s waiting for him — before nagging a little about checking his temper and needing to surround himself with good people.

To an onlooker, they could have been any child and any parent, reconnecting at any school after months apart.

Except they weren’t. This was Red Wing prison, where Irving — parentless and previously homeless — is incarcerated after robbing and shooting a man more than two years ago in northeast Minneapolis. He said he’s been abandoned by what little family he has left.

Not by Gethin, a public relations professional who met Irving while volunteering for a program serving homeless youth. She’s become his bridge to the outside world, as well as to hope, to a job and to a life away from the crime and violence he was careening toward.

“She’s Mom,” he said. “She’s smiling. She’s caring. She always puts a smile on my face.”

Gethin interjects: “And holds you accountable.”

“Holds me accountable,” Irving said. “Yes.”

If theirs seems an unlikely pairing — a former executive who grew up in Edina and worked for big time financial firms, and a onetime homeless teen who graduated from petty drug offenses to aggravated assault in five short years — well, you don’t know Gethin. She’s worked with hundreds of homeless young people over the years, often serving as a quiet presence in their otherwise chaotic lives. Oh, and she brings cookies.

“I try to be nonjudgmental. I try to listen and ask them stuff,” Gethin said of the young people she connects with over chess, coloring books or plates of brownies. “If they don’t want to share stuff with me, then they don’t. But I am a consistent presence in their lives.”

She’s not a therapist, nor a counselor. She connects with young people, some of whom share horrific stories of life on the street, because “I listen,” Gethin said. “I am authentically me.”

When she was young, she said, she was the first female on the grounds crew at Edina Country Club, mowing around trees and seeding the divots left behind by golfers. She later played soccer at St. Olaf College and majored in International Relations. After a career working in public relations, she now runs a consulting business. She’s also the primary caregiver for her mother, whose late stage breast cancer was diagnosed in September 2013. It would be just one of a series of tragic health events.

Her brother died in early 2013, succumbing to rectal cancer at 54. Her father, Bruce Gethin, died of a heart attack Nov. 30, 2013, a few days after Thanksgiving. In 2014, her sister was told she had cancer and, in 2015, Gethin, too, received a cancer diagnosis.

“And then the dog died,” she said.

Gethin said both she and her sister are now cancer-free; her mom is doing OK.

‘They count on me to be there’

Gethin, who never married and has no children, credits the young people she has met and befriended while volunteering several hours every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday for “saving me.” Officials with the program have asked that it not be identified in this story due to privacy concerns.

“One of the ways I get through it is I’m really open,” she said, adding that the young people she works with have given her far more than she’s given them. “They count on me to be there. They really do. But I’ll share with them when I am in a sad place … I let the kids in faster because they’re not looking for something from me.”

Irving’s father died when he was 2. His mother, when he was 15. He has a twin sister and four older sisters, but he considers his family nearly nonexistent.

“I’ve been outside all my life. I was on the street before my mom even passed, really,” he said. “When she passed, I stopped caring about school. I was more fascinated with the street life.”

Life on the streets was smoking weed, selling drugs and toting guns, he said. According to Hennepin County court records, Irving’s first conviction was in November 2011 for not obeying traffic laws while on a bicycle. The offenses ratcheted up to theft, then criminal trespass, then possessing stolen property, possessing drug paraphernalia and marijuana and selling drugs. In November 2016, Irving and several friends robbed a man and his girlfriend near a Walgreens in northeast Minneapolis.

According to the criminal complaint, Irving was holding a gun. When the man ran, Irving fired, striking the victim in the arm and leg. The victim survived and was able to talk to police that night.

Irving pleaded guilty in December 2016 to two counts of first-degree aggravated robbery and was sentenced in April 2017 to six years in prison. With credit for time served, he is scheduled to get out of prison in November 2020 and released from supervision in November 2022.

Gethin found out from a caseworker at the homeless program that Irving had robbed someone. Later, she learned that the young man she’d met when he was 17 was in prison for shooting someone.

“I was shocked,” she said. “He’s a sweetie. Respectful, no drama, always positive.”

Was Irving worried how Gethin would respond?

“Really, I was more worried about what was going to happen to me,” he said. “But then I realized I’d hurt a lot of people.”

After she learned that Irving had been sent to the state prison at Faribault, Gethin got added to his visitor list.

When he saw her in the visiting area for the first time, he cried. No one from his family has ever been to see him.

“I really never expected it,” Irving said of Gethin’s visit. “It helps you to know you have people in your corner.”

After Irving was transferred to Red Wing, a juvenile facility that houses about 45 adults who head to various job sites each day, Gethin began visiting him there. She goes to see him every couple of months. She’s told him about a friend who owns a construction company with a job waiting for Irving when he gets out.

‘It’s going to be hard and it’s scary’

She said she’s not blind to the challenges he faces. “Norman’s going to have a lot of obstacles coming out of here,” Gethin said. “The things he’s going to have to do, showing up for work and working hard. Having a positive attitude.”

Irving has told her about the life he craves, how he someday wants to run his own business flipping houses. He said he takes Gethin’s advice to heart.

“My deal is to choose to be optimistic. I’m not saying that nothing ever goes wrong, because stuff does,” he said. “But there are people out there living a normal life — work, home, family. I just look at myself and go ‘I can do the same thing.’  ”

To do that, Gethin said, Irving will need to “create his own new family. It’s going to be hard and it’s scary. It would be easy for him to just go back into the crowd he was in before.”

He agrees.

“The people I hung out with all day every day — we all got locked up. But they’ll get out first,” he said. “I can’t go back out there and hang out with them. I can’t.”

In the end, Gethin said all she can do is hope that the help she and others have given Irving will help him find his path to a good life. Spoken just like a mom.

“I don’t have any idea if Norman’s going to make it,” she said. “I’m going to do what I can.”