Ross Mantle for Reader's DigestJack Mook, a Gulf War veteran and Pittsburgh police detective, met brothers Josh and Jessee Lyle at Steel City Boxing Association, a nonprofit gym that pairs coaching mentors with inner-city kids, in April 2007. As he coached the boys, Jack, 45, learned some disturbing details about their traumatic home life. Their parents were drug addicts, and the family lived in an area where drug trafficking, prostitution, and violence were everyday realities.
The gym became a refuge for Josh and Jessee. Josh, in particular, worked out tirelessly nearly every day. For five years, “it was an escape from home,” Josh says.
By late summer 2012, though, the boys had stopped going to the gym. Jack went to track them down and found Josh, then 13, after school about a week before Christmas.
He looked terrible, with bags under his eyes and sunken cheeks. His hair was missing in patches, and he had a rash on his neck. Josh told Jack that social services had removed the boys from their neglectful parents and placed them in foster care with an aunt and uncle.
But the new house was infested with rats, roaches, and fleas, Josh said, and their guardians peddled drugs and hit and screamed at the boys. Suspicious of their nephews’ association with a police officer, their guardians kept them away from the gym. “I wanted to sleep my life away,” Josh says.
Jack went home thinking, I’ve got a house to myself. What am I doing?
He contacted a caseworker from the Office of Children, Youth, and Families about taking over custody of the boys, but she claimed that by the agency’s standards, they were “fine.”
Two weeks later, the police arrested the boys’ uncle for heroin possession. Jack alerted a high-ranking official in the Pittsburgh court system, who put him in touch with the boys’ family-court lawyer. After conducting the required background checks on Jack, the court placed Josh and Jessee in foster care with him on February 5, 2013. “That was the most relieved I’ve ever felt,” Josh says.
Under Jack’s care, Jessee, now 11, became a straight-A student, and Josh aspires to attend a military academy and someday join the special forces. Both were 2014 champions in their respective weight classes in the Pennsylvania Western District Golden Gloves, a prestigious national boxing tournament, probably aided by their daily meals of meat and vegetables.
“Josh’s record was 1-8 before … now it’s 7-2,” says Jack. “I think I just put some food in the boy.”
With the boys thriving, Jack officially adopted them in September. On the car ride to the courthouse, Josh was afraid his aunt and uncle would interrupt the proceedings and prevent the adoption from going through. But when the judge declared Jack the boys’ adoptive father, “the biggest smile” spread across Josh’s face. “I knew this was permanent and [that] my brother and I will live a happy life,” Josh says.
Jack finds fatherhood rewarding and humbling. “They’re my best friends,” he says. “There’s no way I’m going to let anyone harm them again.”