The American Dream can mean different things to different people. For many, the American dream includes striking it rich and living a lavish life style; for others, it may mean something more practical, like immigrating to the United States and becoming an American citizen. Often the path can be quite complicated. For example, once you know Brian McGonagill and his family, it will be clear they have been chasing their own American Dream for generations. Furthermore, today Brian is trying to make the American Dream happen for others as well.
When meeting Brian McGonagill, one is immediately stuck by his quiet, unassuming nature and gentle demeanor. However, don’t be misled. There is a subtle hint of strength in his eyes that reveals his wisdom and determination. Brian talks about his own accomplishments with an air of humility, but he comes alive when speaking about his projects that so positively affect the lives of others.
The McGonagill family’s own American dream started when they immigrated to the United States from Ireland, some 6 or 8 generations ago. They first settled in Oklahoma territory and farmed the land. Then, In the 1890s, Brian’s then six-year-old grandfather, great grandparents and great-great grandfather traveled to New Mexico in a covered wagon and settled in the Upper Seven Rivers area, declaring that they chose that site, because the “water was abundant and the grass was belly high to the horses.” To make a living, they went on to breed, train and sell horses. “They were the modern day car salesmen,” Brian smiled, “My very first job was breaking horses and my second job was shoeing them.” Just days out of high school, Brian volunteered for the Marine Corps and found himself in Southeast Asia and Vietnam. His eyes lit up when he explained, “That is when I fell in love with the Philippines.”
After the Military, Brian did many different jobs, including going on to earn his Masters of Divinity and Licensed Pastoral Counseling degrees. He was working in Kermit, Texas at a Hospice when he was asked to return to Carlsbad in 2005 and become the Senior Minister of the Sunset Church of Christ.
Brian married his second wife Shirley about nine years ago. Shirley immigrated to the United States from the Philippines in 2007 and became a United States citizen in January 2015. Shirley said, “In the Philippines, we really looked up to the United States, so coming over here was already an American dream. Now, I feel whatever I get beyond that is really a bonus.” Brian added, “She was a single mom with four kids. However, salaries are really low in the Philippines; so when she came here, she wanted to make enough to put her kids through college and give them a good life.”
Recently, Brian and Shirley have been navigating the waters of the United States Immigration system again, trying to help several of Shirley’s children enter the country, by sponsoring them to get visas and become United States citizens. Shirley’s youngest child was here until she turned 21. At that point she was required to return to the Philippines. “Sending her back was the hardest thing I have ever had to do,” she said.
Brian continued, “We want to play by the rules.” But so far, it’s been a difficult road. The couple has paid thousands of dollars to the government and to lawyers and the best answer they have received so far is it will be 2028 before the older children can immigrate and 2032 before the youngest will be allowed to return to the United States. “That’s how long the line is.” Brian said.
In the meantime, Brian and Shirley must be content with yearly visits to the Philippines to see Shirley’s children and now grandchildren. They don’t just visit relatives while in the area however. Brian and Shirley are supporting and working on a program to help provide shelter and education for single mothers and their children.
When Brian finds himself with a bit of downtime, about 6 to 8 times a year, he and Shirley enjoy RV camping and ATV riding with other couples from his church. They have created a group of about 10 or more couples who call themselves the Sunset Wanderers. The group often goes to the Queens area or Big Bend National Park. This year, they are making plans to camp and explore the area around Durango, Colorado for about a week. RV camping is an entirely different animal from tent camping, and Brian doesn’t want any part of the latter. “I was in the Marine Corps. I had all the tent camping I could stand. I’m not sleeping on the ground again. No matter how careful you are, one rock always finds its way under your back during the night,” he said with a grin.
In Carlsbad most of Brian’s attention is on his church. This includes two services on Sunday, a Bible study Sunday morning, a meal and service Wednesday night, as well as tending to his parishioners’ needs. Additionally, he sits on the Board of the Carlsbad Medical Center. “We want to improve care to the citizens of Carlsbad and improve the reputation of the hospital as well. It has a lot to offer, but we can do more.”
One of Brian’s pet projects is the Carlsbad Transitional Housing and Emergency Shelter (CTHHS). Though Brian has held several positions with CTHHS, including Executive Director, he is currently President of the Board. CTHHS is supported by the United Way and a coalition of area churches. The program includes an eight-room, drug and alcohol free emergency shelter for the homeless and transient population. Each room includes up to four beds, and families are encouraged to stay together.
The shelter is located at 315 W. Bronson in Carlsbad. During Brian’s tenure, CTHHS has grown to include four single-family transitional homes that shelter single mothers and their children for up to a year, while they get back on their feet. During that time, the families are given help to find jobs and learn life-skills, such as financial management. Also, they may get GEDs or have other educational opportunities. By the time they leave the shelter homes, the plan is for them to be set up for success. The potential residents are first evaluated by and then recommended for the program by such organizations as United Way, Battered Family Shelter and Faith, Hope and Love.
Johnnie Bradford, the Housing Supervisor for Transitional Housing, spoke to me a bit about Brian’s role in the CTHHS. “The thing that strikes me about Brian is that he has such a vision for CTHHS; he already knows where he wants to see the program go and he can anticipate the steps to achieve it. He’s forward thinking.” In addition she said, “Brian has been very available for us. If we need something, we talk about it, he makes some calls and usually he just makes it happen.”
James Shipp, the Shelter Manager, also speaks fondly of Brian. “Brian is a guy that would give you anything he has. As a kid, if his mother sent him to the store to get a box of ice cream sandwiches, he would have handed all of them out to friends before he got home. It’s just the kind of guy he is. He sees a need and he tries to fill it.”
For Brian’s grandparents the American dream was working to build a successful homestead from a near barren land. For Brian McGonagill it’s more than just personal. It’s also about making others’ dreams a reality. This can be clearly seen after speaking with Brian and those with whom he works: His idea of the American dream is helping others reach their full potential. Moreover, one can tell he tries to live the Shelter’s motto, “It’s not about giving a hand out, it’s about giving a hand up.”