Tillman Cleve Ward Jr., 23, is a motivated young man determined to make a difference in the lives of disadvantaged youth. As a motivational speaker, he reaches out on a regular basis to young people through his job at the Gloria J. Parks Community Center, and through his role as youth ambassador for Buffalo Peacemakers, an anti-violence coalition that acts as a buffer between teens and police.
Ward’s life has not been easy. When he was younger he recalled living in a homeless shelter with his mother for more than a year. The experience, he said, changed him forever.
People Talk: Describe yourself.
Tillman Ward: I am an energetic person. Happy, loving, caring. I’m very ambitious, very firm within myself and very focused on my life.
PT: Were you always this way?
TW: Yes, actually. My football coaches used to always make my teammates make me captain. I played for Buffalo Vets Little League Football and then at Bennett High School. I was running back and cornerback. My coaches always told me: “Get them ready for the game, Tillman.” That shows leadership and motivation.
PT: Did you start your own motivational speaking business?
TW: Yes, TCW Motivations, motivating youth to become all they can be. You can live a good life and be happy and successful.
PT: What are some of the challenges facing youths in our community?
TW: Killings – mentally and physically. A lot of youths are killing each other. I really believe there’s nobody around them who is positive. Because I have so many positive people around me I would not dare to hurt anybody. I had football coaches when I was younger. I have a father. I have a mother. They expect me to do good because when I was young they taught me to be me and to love everybody.
PT: Have you been personally touched by violence?
TW: I have never really experienced it, but I was always around it. Like I had some friends who were in the gang life. I was always the one to give them a clearer way of thinking. I lost three friends to gang violence and shooting. One thing about me, I am a very passionate person. Let’s be honest, what comes around goes around. If you kill somebody’s best friend, that somebody will come after you. It’s going to get bigger. It’s a hurting scene seeing your friend in a casket and not coming back, not talking to him on the phone, not seeing his smile. It hurts. I think about my little cousins. It gives me a reason to help the community.
PT: Were you tempted by the street?
TW: I was always tempted because I’ve been through a lot in my life. My mother was a single parent from when I was 4 to 12 years old. I have an older sister who’s 27 and an older brother who is 31. We experienced electricity shutoffs. Our gas was turned off. She did it by herself, my mother. We lived on Sussex in the Grider-Delevan neighborhood. And then for a time me and my mother were homeless. We got into the Salvation Army shelter and lived there a year and a half. That was tough for me. We had to eat at a certain time. She had to sign me out just so I could go down the street and visit my friend.
PT: Tell me about your mother.
TW: My mother was a strong woman, Mary Denise Walker, beautiful inside and out. I love her so much. I’m a mama’s boy. She taught me that when things come up in life do not complain. Go forward. Sooner or later, it’s going to get better.
PT: Has it?
TW: A lot better, but as a youth living on the East Side you deal with a lot. You see a lot – drug dealers, fighting.
PT: How do you not get involved?
TW: I was very popular, and all the kids and the older guys in my neighborhood encouraged me. That street, Sussex, was like a family. My neighborhood, I believe, was a nice neighborhood at the time because everyone was there for each other. And I had an older brother. He was a smart guy, went to high school. He was a good guy. He always protected me. Ricardo Walker. I have a great family. I’d like to believe we’re successful. All my cousins are doing very well. They have college degrees. That’s why I am the way I am.
PT: And here you are about to become a father.
TW: Yes, it’s beautiful, and a lot of responsibility. I see more sacrifice, and at the same time it’s somebody to pin it on me to be there for them, give them love and guide them. I just want to be the best person I can be for her and my family. When the baby comes, me and my lady will live together in the same household.
PT: That’s huge, plus you’re working two jobs, right?
TW: I work maintenance mornings in the downtown library 19 hours a week. I also work with kids in the state-funded 21st Century After School Enrichment Program at Gloria J. Parks Community Center. I love the kids. I work there 20 hours a week. And I do motivational speaking on the side. My father always told me not to give up on what you want. My father does a lot in the community also, so that gives me hope. I push myself. A lot of people don’t want to hear what you do. They want to see it.
PT: That’s a lot of responsibility you have being a role model, you know.
TW: Oh yeah. I kind of get excited because it is a lot. I like when the odds are against me so I can prove I’m going to come out on top. I have the Lord in my life, and I pray a lot also.
PT: As a role model, do you believe you can’t make any mistakes?
TW: Oh yeah. The thing that I keep in mind is that I am a self-motivator. I say: “OK Tillman. You’ll have a daughter. You have little cousins, and they need a role model.”
PT: How do you find your zone?
TW: It’s more of a routine. When I have to go speak somewhere, my routine is I get up and thank the Lord first, and then I say today will be a great day. Then I play my feel-good music – Four Tops, Temptations. It helps my spirit to relax. I don’t speak at all. Everybody knows not to talk to me because I’m in the zone. It’s just like me-time.
PT: What kid of a kid were you?
TW: The same way I am now – hyper. Football was everything from 6 to age 15, which was another reason I was never in trouble. I have so many trophies. I always believed hard work paid off. In school, I had to work real hard to get a 75.
PT: Is college in your plans?
TW: Yes. I’m taking a break now, but I plan to attend Buffalo State College to be a school counselor.