Associate heartily encourages members, coworkers and prisoners

Published 4:00 pm Monday, October 22, 2018

When members drive to Sam’s Club by Chesapeake Square Mall in Western Branch for gas, they’re usually greeted with a helping hand from Anthony Vastardis. But everyone that knows him simply calls him Tony or occasionally “Mr. Tony.”

In July, Mr. Tony reached a decade working as a gas station associate at the Chesapeake Sam’s Club in Western Branch. He joined in 2008 after roughly 30 years working as a city inspector, first for the city of Portsmouth, where he was born and raised, and then for the city of Hampton.

He said he started working at the station because he needed a paycheck and health insurance, but also because he felt it was where God wanted him to be.

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“God sent me here,” he said while wearing a hat that reads “Forgiven, 1 John 1:9.” “I was looking for a position and the Lord said, ‘There’s where I want you working.’”

It helps that Mr. Tony lives just five minutes away from work, over by Western Branch High School. He lives with his son Stephen — spelled just like in the Bible, he said — who is a 32-year-old critical care nurse at Bon Secours Maryview Medical Center in Portsmouth. He also has his two grandchildren, Jeffrey and Jayden.

He said he feels blessed to have his amazing family and is quick to thank God for his gifts. He credits his faith to his mother, Athanasia, who passed away when he was just 12 years old.

“She had a heart of gold and a lot of love for God,” he said fondly. “She instilled a lot of good things in me in 12 years.”

It was actually his faith that first took him behind bars for prison ministry, both in the Virginia state prison system and across the country. He currently volunteers in Virginia’s state prisons.

His calling goes back to his time in youth ministry at Hampton Roads schools through Champions for Today, a subset of the Dallas, Texas-based prison ministry Champions for Life founded by Bill Glass, a former player for National Football League teams Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions and a college football hall of famer. The ministry is now called Bill Glass Behind the Walls.

More specifically, it was Mike McCoy, a former defensive tackle for multiple NFL teams, who challenged him to get involved.

“Mike McCoy was the chaplain of the Atlanta Braves when I met him,” Mr. Tony said. At the time, Mr. Tony was doing youth ministry and organizing NFL speakers for talks at schools. “He challenged me one day and said, ‘I think you ought to check out prison ministry.’”

The first time he stepped foot in a prison was in Cook County, Ill., in the early ‘90s. He was picked up from his hotel in a prison bus, then walked past corrections officers with dogs and rifles to meet with inmates.

“It’s my calling to go and encourage people, to let them know that it’s not how you start in life, it’s how you finish. Finish strong with God,” he said.

Mr. Tony wears a ring that was gifted to him by a friend in Texas that he met through his prison ministry work. One side of the ring shows Jesus imprisoned, but on the other side, He’s holding the keys.

“Because He has the keys of heaven, hell and the grave,” he explained.

He wears his ring while helping customers pump gas daily with his coworkers at the Sam’s Club gas station. They keep the station clean and working through all kinds of weather.

“You can get some hot summers out here and you can get some real cold winters, and this canopy is like a wind tunnel,” he said as he pointed to the roof over the pumps. “In the winter it will make you colder, but in the summer, you’ll thank God for the shade when you’re out here walking, talking to people and helping folks.”

He used the term “marketplace ministry,” as in no matter where you are, you can help brighten someone’s day with friendly conversation and prayer.

“With Tony, what you see is what you get,” said Club Manager Kevin Nesbitt. “He’s a great person who brings how he lives to work. I’ve never seen him have a bad day.”

Mr. Tony may not remember every visitor’s name, but he has a good eye for faces. Regulars come by with good and bad news each and every day to share with him while they fill their tanks. He always hopes for the best when it comes to health and family.

“It’s always nice to hear positive reports. I hear stuff about people getting married and children being born. I get to hear a lot of just family talk,” he said.

He explained how he feels compelled by the Lord to encourage people and how he’s been energized by their reciprocated compassion. That includes Nesbitt, who was club manager at the now-closed Norfolk store when he first met Mr. Tony.

“What a lot of people don’t know is when I was at that other club, he’d just come over and see me,” Nesbitt said. “He’d just pop up to talk. Not a lot of folks know that, but that’s just how he is. He just drove 30 miles out of his way to come and say hi. He probably doesn’t remember all of that, but I never forgot it.”

Mr. Tony will turn 63 years old on Aug. 28. He has volunteered for ministry at nearly 10 Virginia state prisons in the past two years, with two more scheduled for August, he said.

He plans to keep ministering and doing what he can to share hope with the incarcerated, and while he hasn’t been convicted, he’s no stranger to divorce, health concerns and other struggles.

“We all go through some trials and tribulations in this life,” he said. “I’ve been through some health issues in my life and relationship issues, but if you don’t go through any trials in your life, how will you grow spiritually and grow in your faith in your God? It’s all a training or preparation ground, I guess you could say.”

He referenced Colossians 3:23 — “and whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men” — when asked about his favorite part of the job.

“It’s the opportunity just to have fellowship with people, and talk (with them) just to hear and enjoy life with them,” he said.