FORT WAYNE – In one room, a couple dozen students work quietly on their homework or read books. Most work individually, but sometimes an older student works with a younger one.
In another room – down the hall past a huge pile of backpacks – students work on computers. In yet another, a half-dozen girls are at a table making anti-drug and anti-alcohol posters.
In the middle of all of them is Shirley Woods, the founder and president of this oasis that sits across the street from crumbling buildings and boarded up houses and just a few blocks from a recent shooting that left one 18-year-old dead and another in critical condition.
The name on the sign outside the building is her sons, Euell A. Wilson, who died of natural causes 21 years ago next month. Wilson was an All-American football player at Bishop Dwenger and was attending Triton Junior College in River Grove, Ill., when he died.
In response, Woods started the Euell A. Wilson Center in her backyard as a way to provide a safe and nurturing place for neighborhood kids and teach them about Christian love.
For 20 years, The Journal Gazette has presented the Euell Wilson Award to a deserving senior football player who demonstrates leadership and talent on and off the field.
We started with 15 kids. The second meeting we had 39 kids. The third we had 70-some kids, Woods says. I hit a nerve.
That nerve has been struck for so long that on Friday, the center will celebrate its 20th anniversary.
Weve gotten to the point where we have kids come that their parents came when they were kids, Woods says. They keep you young.
The center has had several locations over the years but has been at 1512 Oxford St. since 1995. It started out in just part of the building, but quickly grew to use all of it. Wednesday, there were 77 children signed in, and they were expecting more to arrive after extracurricular programs at the schools ended.
Its evident that having a place where kids can get a positive influence is a key thing, Woods says. Everybody wants to be loved and thought of in a positive way. They want to feel like they belong and someone cares about you.
Where ever she goes, as children walk by they offer a Hi, Ms. Shirley! bringing a smile. This, despite the indescribable pain of losing her son, is how she heals.
I have learned so much from these kids, Woods says. Were big on showing love, and thanks to them Ive learned how to love everybody, no matter their personality, the color of their skin, their faith. Ive learned how to accept kids and their families.
LaMonica Flippen, 17, has been coming to the center for eight years.
Its safe up here. I like it, Flippen says. We learn about God.
Nearby, Woods husband, Christopher Woods, is complimenting a boy for not having to be reminded to pull up his pants when he came in.
Yeah, the boy smiles. I keep em up now.
Parents like the center, too, Woods says, because even though they may be poor and cannot offer their children everything they wish they could, they know they are in a good, safe environment at the Euell Wilson Center.
I hear parents all the time say how much they appreciate it, Woods says. Its structure. The kids cant go in and out. And its safe.
Its also busy: In addition to homework time every day, there are 4-H programs, drum lessons, drug prevention, dance classes, arts and crafts, time for boys and time for girls.
The pain of losing a child never goes away. But seeing Euells name on the sign outside and having to confront his memory every day, does that make the pain worse?
No, it brings much comfort, Shirley Woods says. She learned after his death and after she started the center that Euell had written that if his dream of playing in the NFL didnt work out, he wanted to help disadvantaged children.
I realized I was living out his dream, Woods says. Im living out a dream for him.