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Truro man recognized for community youth work


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Ralph Willis, who was honoured yesterday, looks over a cutout from The Truro Daily News in 1990 with Sherry Jackson-Smith and his grandson, Tyrece Paris, 12. Raissa Tetanish - Truro Daily News

TRURO - Listening to the words of many people he's touched, Ralph Willis laughed, smiled and nodded his head.

And at the age of 65, he still has his quick wit about him.

"I don't know the man they were talking about," he said with a laugh, following a reception in his honour where he received recognition from the Truro Black Educators Committee for his work with local African Nova Scotian youth in the community.

When asked about receiving the recognition to kick off Black History Month, Willis only had one word before flashing a huge smile.

"Awesome."

For years, Willis had a hand in improving the lives of many in Truro, as well as the northern region in Nova Scotia and beyond.

"In order for (the youth) to find gainful employment, I knew I had to deal with education," he said. "When I first got the job finding employment in the black community, I realized that in order to be successful, I would have to work with education, social services and the law."

From January 1988 to March 1997, Willis was employed as a black employment counsellor.

He started a Saturday School Program in 1993 and also walked to Halifax to take 52 children on a trip to Prince Edward Island.

But having such a celebration for his accomplishments wasn't just for him.

"You keep calling it, ‘Ralphie's day,' but it's not Ralphie's day, it's ‘Our day.' Everything that I have done, I could not have done without all of you people and your support," he said.

"I learned very early in the game to find out about who knows and they'll make you look like a genius."

Those nine years Willis spent as a black employment counselor were the happiest years of his life.

"I used to go home at night and think about how to spend Dave Purcell's money," he said, referencing the man who works with Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC).

Jude Clyke, a Truro native, said the Saturday School Program had a huge impact on his own life. Clyke was 19 when he first started working with Willis.

"I was first introduced to community development and through that involvement, I became involved in a number of initiatives in the community," said Clyke, noting the Saturday School Program had the biggest impact on him.

The program was a cultural education program for African youth that wasn't just beneficial to the participants, said Clyke, but it was also an employment opportunity for many.

"How that impacted me was the importance of knowing who you are. We discovered so many things about who we are as African people."

He said the program was Afro-centric and included Afro-centric activities.

"It really resonated with me."

While many people got up to speak about having Willis impact their lives, there was a common theme among those who spoke.

They all spoke about the kind of man Willis was and is and words such as mentor, pioneer, trailblazer, friend, father, teacher and unsung hero were mentioned over and over.

"Ralph, you are the only man I have ever met where I can truly say, ‘this man made a difference,'" Purcell said.

rtetanish@trurodaily.com

 

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