Springfield, Ohio is the saddest city in America. According to Gallup officials, analysts gathered information over a three-year period by calling 1,000 people a day to ask about their emotional and physical health, work environment and basic access to food, shelter and health care. So why would anyone stay if so many residents had less than flattering things to say about this struggling Rustbelt town?
“At the end of the day, this is where I feel my mission is,” Tyler Worley, a 32-year-old Springfield resident, said.
Worley has lived in Springfield his entire life. He attended Northwestern High School, located in the outskirts of Springfield, where he was a hometown hero for his impressive baseball career, but chose to remain in Springfield for a higher calling.
“There’s a real need here. I didn’t have this outlet or I chose to ignore it when I was in high school, but I needed it then,” Worley said. “Maybe I would not have made some of the bad choices I did if I had the outlets we provide, so that’s why our work is so necessary.”
Worley is dressed simply. He has on black sweatpants, Nike tennis shoes and is wearing a black t-shirt that has “MP” for Manpower, in big red and white block letters going down the left side of his shirt.
Worley has just finished a game of pick-up basketball with some of the middle school kids he mentors every Tuesday and Thursday. A bead of sweat rolls from his short black hair, down his face, and into his perfectly shaped black beard. Despite finishing up the game, Worley is all business as he addresses the unruly kids and calmly quiets them so that he may begin his closing remarks for the day.
His patience is remarkable.
Just when it appears the wave of excitement and rude comments from the children has ended and Worley is about to speak, another child interjects a comment. Worley calmly examines the crowd of children, slowly quieting each one as they receive his gaze. Somehow there is never a hint of frustration on his face.
Worley is the Springfield Youth Head Coordinator for Manpower, a branch service of the Springfield City Youth Missions (SCYM)and an afterschool program for intercity middle school youth of Springfield, where they come for an unique exposure to the Bible and adult guidance in their young adolescent lives. Most of the young men who attend the program are without traditional parental figures and role models to help guide them through life.
Worley has a unique understanding of these troubled youths because he has been there himself.
“It was a troubling and dark time of my life,” Worley said as he looks down and lower his voice. “I did things I’m not proud of. I did drugs. I had sex with random women. It was a low point in my life. I was trying to fill the holes of my life with superficial things and the more I tried to fulfill these things with what my social circle held in high esteem, the more I felt lost.”
Worley was a promising baseball player in his high school days who, like many Springfield youths, was unfortunately consumed by the darker aspects of the saddest city in America.
Between his failing grades, and failed drug tests, Worley was kicked off the Edison Community College Baseball team and therefore lost his full-ride scholarship.
“I was lost,” Worley said. “After that, I went deeper and deeper into those sinful vices. And then one day everything changed. I was in my room and I don’t know what it was, but I felt drawn to look through my closet. Eventually I found this old Bible that I don’t know how got there. I was willing to try anything to feel better about my life, so I did a skeptical prayer and opened the Bible.”
The rest is history.
Worley was so moved by the Bible’s message that he completely changed his life. He began volunteer work in Springfield that has transformed into his job with the Springfield City Youth Mission, got married to his wife, Abbie, and had two sons, Zander, age seven, and Caleb, age three. He’s even performed mini-miracles like healing a young woman’s ear infection over the phone with a prayer. He is currently in the process of becoming an ordained minister.
However, despite all the good works of Worley, Springfield is among the most dangerous cities in Ohio. According to NeighborhoodScout.com, a site for research of a new or potentially new town to relocate to, Springfield is well above the national average for cities of Springfield’s size for crime rate in burglary, theft, murder, rape and assault.
“Yeah, I’ve thought about leaving,” Worley said. “But there’s something about where you’re born. It’s special, you have an innate desire to make it better.”
Worley’s day begins with going to the office and headquarters SCYM, a non-profit company supported by the city of Springfield.
Once at the office, he meets with his boss, Craig Schmitt, and is given his assignments for the day that include tasks focused on recruiting participants for the program (both children and volunteers) and fundraising for SCYM. Once done, around noon, he begins traveling to several Springfield area middle schools for SCYM-sponsored program Wiseguys.
“Wiseguys is a lot like Manpower, but it’s more limited,” Worley said. “The kids we work with are less in our control and we have less time with them. But, at the same time, it’s effective. That’s how Manpower came into being actually. Kids wanted more time with us, so we made time for them afterschool.”
Manpower may sound rather simple in concept, but its results speak for themselves. The usual run down for Manpower begins with a “snack time.” The kids, Worley and adult volunteers, mostly Wittenberg students, eat Doritos and other similar snacks and talk about whatever social topic is on the docket.
Today, the debate was over where James will go after the current season concludes, how far the Cavaliers will advance in the playoffs and who should win the MVP: James Harden or LeBron James. James was the overwhelming favorite.
Once snack time is finished, and the debate has somewhat ended (a clear answer is never reached) everyone gathers around for a quick Bible study. Everyday a message is intended to be conveyed. Today’s was “Greatness.”
“What makes someone great?” Worley said.
“Money,” said one child dressed in worn-out jeans and a red shirt too big for him.
“If you’re a good athlete,” said another overweight child in over-used shoes that threatened to reveal his toes.
“A big house,” offers another with a Hello Kitty backpack that is clearly a hand-me-down.
“That’s interesting,” Worley said. “You all gave me material things… What about gratitude?”
“Okay. Everyone say someone who you think is a great leader,” Worley said.
“Martin Luther King Jr.,” said the child with worn-out jeans.
“Rosa Parks,” said the one with the backpack.
“Mr. Tyler,” one boy says hesitantly from the back of the room. Worley tries not to look surprised but does a poor job hiding his appreciation as a smile quickly appears and disappears. Gaining more confidence, the child says, “You know who I look up to, Mr. Tyler,” said the boy. “We’re lucky he makes time for us. No one else does.”
All the young men nod in agreement.
It takes Worley a moment to recollect himself and resume the conversation.
“Today was a good day,” reflects Worley. “I know what I’m doing is a good thing, I’m not so self-righteous to not acknowledge that, but it’s nice to hear it back from them.”
Not every day offer compliments however.
“You’ll get moments where the curtain peels back,” Worley said. “You can’t live for those moments though. It’s a thankless job most of the time.”
Some children are not as open with Worley.
“I’ve been told to ‘f’ off,” Worley said. “I’ve got the ‘You’re not my dad’. How I act here isn’t how I always am. Yeah, I’d like to disciple them but there’s not really time for that. There’s only time for one thing, to get our message across. They get so much of the yelling at home or at school, I want to offer them something different.”
Worley confessed that not all the children work out for the program. He has had to remove children from the program, tell the parent(s) that he cannot help their child, one former member of the program was even murdered last year in a drug deal gone wrong.
“Those, those are the ones that cut the deepest,” Worley said as he again looks down and rotates his wedding ring around his finger. “You tried but it was too late or not enough to save them. I have to take a little time before I go home on those days. I’ll pray, or I’ll call a friend, just something that helps me get back to the big picture.”
“Tyler is one of our most important guys,” Schmitt said. “The sheer fact that he has that story of his own trials and tribulations, it really helps him connect to the kids. But what really sets him apart from our other guys, is his patience. We have this training and suggested responses to deal with backtalk and insults, but honestly, I don’t think Tyler ever needed it.”
“It’s weaponized patience,” Worley said laughing. “These kids, they come from homes where the only model of male authority they have is yelling or threats. So, I try to show them something different, and it’s funny because that really throws them off at first. Like, ‘This dude isn’t yelling at me, and he’s still trying to teach me something. Maybe he does care.’ And that’s basically all I do; I ask them. Because a lot of times they don’t have anyone that is asking them how they’re doing.”
So, what’s Worley’s end game? Why does he want to help mold these desperate and impressionable kids?
“World domination!” Worley said laughing. “No, no, but I want as many kids as possible to hear our message. I’d like to turn Manpower into some kind of academy, or a model that other cities can use. They can be like ‘Hey, it worked in Springfield. If it can work there it can work anywhere.’”