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Appalachian Scene: A Vision of What Can Be

by Lynda McDaniel

When George Bernard Shaw declared that youth is wasted on the young, he couldn't have envisioned R. Benjamin Wiley. At the age of 24, Wiley became the executive director of the Greater Erie Community Action Committee (GECAC), a troubled agency separated from its mission. With youthful idealism and energy, Wiley set about methodically and unfalteringly realigning GECAC programs with the needs of the people they served. That was in 1969. Thirty-one years later, he's still at it, adding social services and programs with a youthfulness that defies the decades of hard work.

Ask Wiley how any 24-year-old could be prepared for such responsibility, and he talks at length about his mother and uncle and their emphasis on work and education, religion and community. He was only five when his father was killed, leaving his mother and her nine children to make it on their own. But they were never alone.

"We lived in a small farming, mining community [in Belmont County, Ohio] that from time to time had endured tragedy and difficult times, so people pulled together," he explains. "Everyone's motto was 'charity begins at home,' and you genuinely looked out for one another."

Wiley brought that philosophy with him when he attended Erie's Gannon University. Between classes and basketball games, he counseled fellow students, coached team sports, and volunteered at a local orphanage, the NAACP Youth Council, and the Salvation Army. After graduation, he joined General Telephone Company as an accountant and continued his outreach at the Booker T. Washington Center, where Eva Tucker Jr. was interim director.

"Ben was hired to work in the evening program with the boys," recalls Tucker, who is now an assistant professor at Behrend College (Penn State Erie). "He could relate to the teenagers. He was able to get them to believe in themselves and help them realize their dreams. He's a very unselfish person, always willing to give."

Others noticed that, too. Soon a group from the NAACP approached Wiley about applying for the job at GECAC. He said no.

"I couldn't make any sense out of what they were doing over there," he says in a voice that falls somewhere between statesman and preacher. "I told them 'no' three different times. Then I went to a child-care center. All the grown-ups in the world were talking to me, but that didn't do anything compared to seeing those little kids who weren't getting what they needed. I could identify with them—except for the grace of God, there I go."

The Right Goals

Wiley's own triumphs over hardship seem to have stripped away life's protective veneer, exposing an unassailable sense of the truth ("Truth is a powerful ally") and an uncanny sense of other people's worth ("I can see potential before others know it in themselves"). Tucker believes it was this ability that allowed Wiley to hire the best staff, encourage responsible people to apply for the board, and establish the right goals.

"In many ways Ben is a visionary," he adds. "He's always been interested in how the agency could render better services to the people. And the only way to achieve those goals was to work with people at all levels, from the politicians to the citizens he met in the neighborhoods."

Through a mix of naivete and savvy, Wiley personally convinced J. Robert Baldwin, one of the most influential businessmen in Erie, to serve as chair of the board, a move that provided GECAC the foundation it lacked. Wiley gave Edward M. Gabriel, now U.S. ambassador to the kingdom of Morocco, his first job out of college, and enlisted Thomas Ridge, then a young assistant district attorney and now governor of Pennsylvania, as board treasurer.

Three decades of remarkable results tell the rest of the story. Today, with an annual budget of $22 million and a staff of 450–500 (depending on the time of year), GECAC runs a broad range of programs, including Head Start and other child development projects; drug and alcohol prevention, treatment, and case management; employment, education, and training assistance; nutrition services; housing and weatherization assistance; and transportation services. GECAC's day-care program, the first in Erie County, was funded in part by the Appalachian Regional Commission and grew into a $1 million program before it was turned over to the county.

Wiley's passion for education shows up everywhere. The GECAC Learning Center, for example, is a multifaceted 45,000-square-foot complex that houses educational programs for residents 6 weeks to 75 years old. GECAC also sponsors numerous job training and employment programs, such as the GECAC Training Institute, summer youth employment and manpower planning services, and Erie's newly opened CareerLink, a "one-stop-shopping" site for employment and training services that provides access to computer and Internet technology, state and federal job banks, government services, and education programs.

The GECAC Community Charter School is Erie's first charter school and serves at-risk children in kindergarten through grade five in an environment of individual attention and family involvement. This fall, the school will move into a 43,000-square-foot facility and enroll 280 students in grades K–6; by the fall of 2002, it will expand to K–8.

"Ben Wiley believes in education as the primary solution to poverty, crime, hate—the answer to society's ills," says Frank Pogue, president of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, where Wiley is a member and former ten-year chair of the Council of Trustees. "Ben has a kind of magnetism that brings this community together. Racial groups, different socioeconomic groups, business leaders, ministers, you name it—he is the one person who can bring such a rainbow of people together around almost any issue."

Many of the GECAC staff learned the skills they needed on the job, thanks to another Wiley innovation. In the 1970s, he recruited regional university graduates in public administration and social work for two- to three-year commitments and assigned GECAC employees to shadow them. Today, that local talent has advanced within GECAC from secretary to human resource director, bookkeeper to chief financial officer, and caseworker to director of the Area Agency on Aging, among other examples.

"Now listen to me," Wiley interjects, "sometimes there's so much focus on me that people forget that I've been blessed with a wonderful staff. Add up all their years of service, and you've got over 200 years. You can put people on track and train them to do great things. It's all about reaching your potential."

Wiley's office walls are covered with photographs of people who have done just that. He talks like a proud father (and more than a few of those he's helped call him "Dad") as he tells their stories, pointing to pictures of athletes and college graduates nestled between award certificates, a copy of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, and plaques with motivational messages such as "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance."

Empowering People

These days, Wiley has to divide his time between the community and the office, or, as he puts it, "out looking where things aren't happening versus making things happen." Again, he relies on his staff, which will help them prepare for 2005, the year he plans to retire and spend more time with his wife, Barbara Gavin Wiley, who is assistant principal at Erie's East High School, and his two sons and two stepdaughters.

Wiley will continue serving on boards, volunteering, and, in all likelihood, earning awards such as the prestigious John D. Whisman Vision Award he won this year from the Development District Association of Appalachia. Named after John D. Whisman, a Kentuckian who devoted his life to improving economic conditions in the Appalachian Region, the award honors a single individual who has demonstrated commitment and provided leadership toward that same goal. Wiley also won the Lewis Hine Award in 1988 and the Alexis de Tocqueville Society Award this year.

Many, no doubt, are thinking it will be impossible to replace this legend, but then empowerment is what Wiley is all about. He has built a strong organization with talented people, and by the year 2004, his successor will be in place to work side-by-side with him for a year. It will all come full circle then, with a new leader shadowing the man who so many years ago gave this agency its mission back and prepared so many to carry it forth.

And there will always be the stories. Just about everybody in Erie has a Ben Wiley tale to tell—not only those in boardrooms and public offices, but also those in barbershops and grocery stores, factories and classrooms. People like Baron Noaks, a young man studying for his general equivalency diploma whom Wiley recently met at the GECAC Learning Center. That story is yet to unfold, but if it's like hundreds before, Noaks's life will never be the same. His path crossed Wiley's not so much by chance as about chance, about opportunities Wiley opens for those with the courage and determination to accept.

"To see people who don't know and understand what they are capable of accomplishing, and to embrace them and lift their self-esteem, to see them grow in confidence, that gives me the most joy and satisfaction," Wiley says. "That's the difference between a bad life and a good life."

Lynda McDaniel is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Virginia.