Willis facility gives help and hope to children in foster-care system

Some children do cry over spilled milk.

There are underprivileged youth who can be traumatized by such a simple mistake. Reaching those children, downtrodden by the foster-care system, has become the passion of brothers Kevin and Robert Willis and their charity Atlanta Children’s Foundation. They have created The Village, a 150-acre summer camp located here, to empower those in foster care with a sense of belonging and the skills to take care of themselves. They refer to it as an experiential learning community.

Kevin Willis, a former Hawks All-Star, purchased the property eight years ago and started the non-profit organization in 2002 as a way to pass on some of what he learned from others who lent a helping hand while he was growing up in Detroit. Slowly but surely, the facility has grown.

“It was mind-blowing to me,” Willis said, recalling a trip to a summer camp when he was 12 years old. “To take a kid out of his or her environment and bring them somewhere where they can open up their minds and expand and see that there is more than they are accustomed to seeing every day, that changes a kid’s life.”

Twins Judea and Ja’el Brown have come to the facility for the past eight summers. The soon-to-be 17-year-olds have been campers, teen helpers and counselors as they have returned even after being adopted at age 11 by a family from Toccoa who assisted at the camp.

“When we were teen helpers, one child dropped a glass of milk,” Judea Brown said. “They just started crying. We were like, what’s going on? Their foster mom apparently punished them for spilling milk. Coming to the camp, if you spill milk, you just clean it up. They were like ‘Wow, I don’t get punished for spilling milk?’ It’s the smallest things that help a child understand.”

The Village accepts children ages 6-18 and draws from 17 counties in Georgia. The programs consist of one-week on-premises camps during the summer months. There are also weekend programs throughout the year. Children are referred by local Division of Family and Children Services and private placement agencies.

“Nobody cares about them,” said Bill Mortenson, a member of the board of directors for the charity. “They are kind of the lost children. No one sees the foster children. No one sees that they move from house to house with a Kroger bag. They are shuffled all over.”

Judea Brown plans to join the Navy upon graduation from high school. Ja’el Brown will attend Spellman College with the hopes of attending the Julliard School. They have spent most of their young lives traveling from state to state and home to home as their mother battled with schizophrenia.

“We were coming up through the foster-care system, and this place just gives so much hope,” Ja’el Brown said. “You feel like somebody does actually loves you. When people say they are going to do something and they don’t do it, it’s like false hope.

“Coming here, it gives the kids hope. There is a better future for them. You can be anything you want to be. You don’t have to listen to the negative statistics.”

Johnny Manuel has been coming to the summer camps since he was 8 and is now a counselor. The 19-year-old spent his life in foster care and is now in an independent-living program. He will enter Toccoa Falls College in the fall.

“It seems like family,” Manual said. “It seems like home.”

Campers have access to amenities such as sports and arts and crafts. Last week, the Hawks renovated a basketball court that will be the latest edition. There are also opportunities for education and vocational training in electrical, auto mechanics, welding and wood working. There are plans for a kitchen that will be used to provide culinary training.

Also in the planning stages is Village Square, a collection of 17-20 business where campers can work and learn from different companies year round. The idea is modeled after the Enterprise Village in Pinellas, Fla., where county fifth-graders are taught the basics of economics, capitalism and business in a one-day program. Village Square will provide a week-long experience.

“We want to create a place for kids, not just a fun place to come for the summer,” said Robert Willis, the executive director of the facility. “It’s to prepare them for life. More than 60 percent of these kids won’t go back home. They’ll never go back to their biological family. If someone doesn’t intervene in their lives, 18 months after they age out of foster care, they either become 80 percent of our U.S. prison population or 70 percent of the sexually exploited. The statistics are horrendous. The idea is to provide supportive services.”

The facility has relationships with the NBA, the National Basketball Players Association, the Hawks and several major companies including American Express. The NBA has allowed the Willis brothers to use the league’s intellectual property to raise funds. The Players Association has a matching-grants program for current and former players’ charities and non-profits and has assisted in recent years.

“Kevin was one of the first former players to take advantage of (the matching funds program),” said David Lafleur, chief administrative officer of NBPA who attended last week’s court unveiling. “This has just been a terrific partnership. Kevin and Robert are just doing spectacular work. For us to be able to be a part of it and support it is just great.”

The Willis brothers, known as Uncle Kevin and Uncle Robert to campers, recently reached an agreement with American Express to provide Crisis Cards for youth who have aged out of foster care and are in emergency need of food or clothing.

There is still much work to be done, both for the children and on the facility. A group of students recently qualified for a state competition in science, but could not attend because of the $5,000 entry fee.

“This is meaningful,” Robert Willis said. “We are halfway to the dream.”