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William Wesley’s life was out of control. It was 1993, and he held a good job as a manager of a consumer electronics firm, but he drank to excess. He used drugs. He was a “bad partner in a bad marriage,” as years of depression and frustration had taken their toll.
Despite the outward appearance of success, Wesley felt envious and resentful of those who were more successful than he was. Clearly, something in his life was missing.
After one evening of partying, Wesley arrived home feeling lost and miserable. Emotionally and spiritually drained, still dressed in his work clothes, he collapsed on his bed in tears. Then he asked God for help.
Somehow something clicked, and Wesley’s life changed the next morning. He owned up to the things that he feared and the mistakes that he made, and slowly he felt his inner numbness being replaced by an appetite for life.
“I felt touched, like everything had been lifted,” he said.
After a stint in rehab, Wesley started to rebuild his life. He earned master’s and law degrees and began his career as an author and financial coach.
Above all, Wesley was determined to give back. With a goal to become “a better William Wesley than before,” he focused on helping young people who had come from disadvantaged backgrounds, similar to his own childhood in the Hunters Point neighborhood of San Francisco.
One day at an Oakland A’s game, Wesley watched a group of young kids talking about how great it would be to become a professional athlete. They’re going to fall into a pothole if they think that’s going to happen, Wesley thought, so he asked himself how to combine the attraction these kids had to sports with the need to reinforce good academics and citizenship.
In his book, “Full Life Balance,” Wesley describes how in the late 1990s he enlisted the cooperation of the Oakland Unified School District, the Oakland A’s and the Golden State Warriors to initiate the Stadium Scholarship program, which recognized good students and congratulated them in person at an Oakland professional sporting event. The program showed young kids that it can be cool to be a success in a lot of areas, not just sports.
Wesley said that his program has given away over 250 Stadium Scholarships to outstanding kids from the Oakland public school system, but that’s not the end of the story.
When he moved to Green Valley in Solano County in 2005, Wesley continued his efforts to convince kids to pursue strong academics and education with the help of Tara Dacus, a woman whom he called “truly an angel.”
In 2014, Dacus became the president of the Fairfield-Suisun Rotary Club. She and Heather Sanderson of the Fairfield Police Activities League met at Mimi’s Cafe in Fairfield to brainstorm ideas for helping kids from disadvantaged backgrounds in the area.
“In our minds, Heather is an all-around saint, devoting her life and sometimes safety to the disenfranchised youth of our community,” said Dacus, unknowingly passing forward Wesley’s compliment about herself.
After touring the Police Activities League youth center, Dacus and two other local Rotary Club presidents agreed to sponsor and help students navigate two years at Solano Community College. It was the beginning of the Rotary Success Scholars program, sponsored and funded by the Fairfield-Suisun, Cordelia and Fairfield-Suisun Twilight Rotary clubs.
“The mission of the Rotary Success Scholars program is to educate, support and develop high-potential youth from disadvantaged circumstances to make positive life and career choices as they transition from youth to adulthood,” said Joan Lovell, Rotary Success Scholars program coordinator.
The initial program assisted students with books and tuition, a laptop computer, food vouchers, $10 for every day they attended classes and a bus pass, Lovell said.
Wesley, a club member since 2013, jumped into the Rotary Success Scholars program. Wesley and Dacus talked about offering not only financial aid for education but also guidance and support from club members — “champions” for the students, or “scholars.”
“It was a lifesaving program, and I became a supporter and a champion,” Wesley said.
Rotary Success Scholars are selected through recommendations of the Fairfield Police Activities League and the local area high schools. Rotarians interview the candidates and explain the program’s expectations. “They must go to school, attend four Rotary meetings a year to tell us what’s up with them and communicate with their sponsor,” Wesley said.
One of Wesley’s original scholars was Jermaine Tilson, a young adult who grew up in foster care and was sleeping under a bridge when he connected with the program. He had been afraid to ask anyone for help.
“William surprised me,” Tilson said. “He told me that it is always OK to ask for help. And you don’t have to share your dreams with anyone.”
The dream that Tilson was afraid to share was to become an artist and make money doing it. He is now a working artist, specializing in abstract art and murals. His work is available to view and purchase at https://jcrux96.com/, and he has a solo show opening 7 p.m. Saturday at TEX Gallery in Sacramento that runs through May 21.
Dacus said that Tilson has become one of the top speakers at Rotary functions, and that he has spoken to the state legislature about how to fix the foster care system.
Bernardo Ortega also completed the Rotary Success Scholars program. Ortega, his brother and his sister were all in college at the same time, and his selection to the program removed much of the financial burden from his family.
“The program also gave me the opportunity to see what else was out there,” said Ortega, who was uncertain what he wanted to do with his life.
“She urged me to keep at it, to keep moving forward,” Ortega said of Lovell, his champion. “As a result, I got to meet a lot of new people.”
Ortega graduated from UC Davis in 2019, followed up with postgraduate work at San Francisco State and today is a renal dietician at DaVita, an international healthcare company.
Lovell noted that 31 students have started the Rotary Success Scholars program since its inception, with 10 of the students now working full-time. “Two students have degrees from UC Davis, and three have transferred to four-year schools,” she said.
Dacus attributed much of the success of the program to Wesley, who named and enhanced the program. “It grabbed his heart,” she said. “He is a doer, and he wants to make the world a better place.”
“We can change the world,” Wesley wrote in his book. “I just believe that because of our history — the sacrifices that were made for all of us to be here today — it’s our responsibility to do what we can do to establish our own legacy of good deeds.”