Bob Willis plans to be with the three young men he mentors at South Oldham High School for over six years. They call him Coach; he calls them amazing young men with promise.
They met through Hope Collaborative, a nonprofit that pairs mentors with young men and women referred by resource teachers in public schools.
In the beginning, the boys tried everything to drive Bob away.
“They’ve seen a lot and been through it,” Bob said. “It took a while for them to trust me. At one point, I told them I came a long way to be with them, that I love them and want mentorship to work. I told them people don’t expect them to succeed.”
Then, he threw out a challenge: “Let’s prove them wrong.”
Bob has been on a journey not unlike the young men he mentors. He grew up in a housing project in Louisville and was raised by a strong single mom who dragged him to church. He married Marita, a girl he’d known since the third grade, and got degrees and built his own business. He and Marita raised their son and daughter to also be successful, but then buried both—their daughter after she lost her battle with sickle cell anemia and their son following a drowning accident.
So, Bob and Marita poured themselves into other children, with Bob choosing to mentor the three young men at South Oldham High School.
“They know my happiest and saddest times,” Bob said. “I can’t fix everything they face—no food in the fridge, a fight with mama’s boyfriend, fighting at school.”
Bob tries to find common ground. To the kid whose first response is to fight, he talks about conflict resolution. To the kid who feels like prison is his future, Bob talks about how his life can be different. To the young man with scars from abuse, he talks about the fact that being dealt a bad hand doesn’t have to determine the future.
Sometimes sharing his heart with the boys comes simply through a hug, something new for them.
“I love helping them navigate through childhood to adulthood,” Bob said. “They’re at a crossroads. What they know and what they do will affect them for a long time. We cover important things such as what they’re giving back, the look they get for not fitting into the collegiate or athlete clique. We talk about looking people in the eye, shaking hands, and not walking around mad at the world. We look at their strengths and help them dream again.”
Bob challenges them to say, “Yes, ma’am” and “Yes, sir.” One year they studied the stock market and talked about being business owners.
In time, these kids surprise teachers.
The boys always walk him to the office when it’s time to leave.
One day a school staff member said, “I don’t know what you’re doing to those boys, but I hope it continues. One of them opened the door for me the other day.”
Bob had been mentoring the same boys about two years when he brought a wrapped box for each one.
They chose and opened their box. Each held one of Bob’s favorite ties—one pink, one blue, another black and purple. It seemed to be a puzzling gift to a high school student until he explained the story behind each. Bob’s late son, Ra’Shaan, wore the black and purple tie to his senior prom. Bob showed them a photo of Ra’shaan in that tie. Another was from the day Bob escorted Aretha Franklin to the Kentucky Derby. Another was his favorite designer tie.
Bob asked if they knew how to tie them.
“They said yes. Of course, they knew everything, but they were a mucky mess,” he said. “It was a great time to connect as they learned how to tie those ties. When it was time for me to leave, the boys asked if they could keep wearing their ties with the t-shirts. That was a great day.”
Hope Collaborative needs mentors like Bob, those who will commit to meeting with kids an hour a week.
“People have quit on these kids,” Bob said. “All we have to do is show up. That will mean a lot over time. I hope I’m invited to their high school and college graduations, to their weddings, and (to) hold their first baby.”
To learn how you can volunteer with the
Hope Collaborative Public School Outreach program, click here.