Teen Center manager sees Christ in kids with troubles

| September 23, 2010 | 0 Comments

Rob Wills, second from left, talks with kids at Mary’s Place, a housing facility run by Mary Jo Copeland. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

It was almost 11 a.m. — opening time for the Teen Center at Sharing and Caring Hands in Minneapolis. Already, 13 kids stood by the door, restlessly awaiting the arrival of the center’s manager, Rob Wills.

Within minutes, Wills’ white van appeared, and six kids hurried to meet him. He wore camouflage shorts, a black “security” cap and a black, sleeveless T-shirt with “Teen Center Powerlifters” in white on the front, an ode to one of the activities he runs at the center. The back had his name, along with a maxim that could read as his motto: “Failure is not an option.”

A willing role model

Many of the kids who spend time at the Teen Center live at Mary’s Place, a family transitional housing facility on the Sharing and Caring Hands site, best known for serving a copious number of meals daily to the hungry and homeless.

The organization’s founder, Mary Jo Copeland, is one of Wills’ inspirations, he said.

Since Wills, 43, started managing the center in 1998, he has ensured the center’s safety and order, and has organized activities like movie outings, pizza parties and weekly discussion groups.

The Leading With Faith award honors the way he leads kids, many of whom hunger for direction, a listening ear and a positive role model as they face a world of broken families, addiction and violence.

‘Kids who make it’

The kids hunger for God, Wills said. “What’s so fortunate is that we’re at a place where you can talk about God — it’s so important. Whatever the devil is pushing you into, you can talk about it,” he said.

He’s formed two groups for boys — one for ages 7 to 11, the other for teens — to share their joys and struggles.

Because prayer and faith-sharing are central to what Wills does, he strives to share the Catholic faith without turning off youth who aren’t religious or belong to other denominations or religions.

When asked what he’s most proud of in his work, he pointed to Seville Hill, 20, who works in the center. “Kids like him,” he said. “Kids who make it.”

Wills met Hill when he was 8 years old and his family was staying at Mary’s Place. Later, when Hill stopped attending high school, Wills helped him re-enroll and get his life on track. Now, Hill is in college and engaged to be married. Wills is his best man.

“Rob is so phenomenal,” Hill said. “Through all the hard times, I was able to call Rob. . . . For a man who can’t walk, he sure helped me walk through a lot of my situations.”

Overcoming challenges

Wills is a paraplegic — he broke his back in a car accident at age 19. Before the accident, “everything I touched was gold,” he said. He had been an all-metro bench-press champion. When doctors told him that losing his ability to walk would limit his life and that he would never lift weights again and likely not get married, he was determined to prove them wrong.

And he did. He competed in the Paralympics twice — in Barcelona in 1992 and Atlanta in 1996 — as a weightlifter. His personal best — 501.7 pounds —  is tattooed on his right bicep. And in 2006, he married his wife, Marci.

Wills also hasn’t let his wheelchair stop him from heroic actions. He’s risked his safety to help Mary’s Place residents during a fire and calmly handled an incident when young men brought guns into the Teen Center. In the latter situation, he invited the men into his office so as not to alarm other kids and told them to leave. They did.

Wills sees the face of Jesus in the kids, adults and even men from the street, he said, adding, “That’s how fortunate I am — to be able to view that.”

Biography

  • Title: Manager, Teen Center at Sharing and Caring Hands and night manager at Mary’s Place.
  • Parish: St. Vincent de Paul, Brooklyn Park.
  • Spouse: Marci Wills.
  • Stepchildren: Shelby Baker and Molly Baker.
  • Activities: Work supporting Sharing and Caring Hands.

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Category: Leading With Faith