Ex-Winthrop softball star leading mentoring effort

08/26/2014 11:03 PM

08/26/2014 11:04 PM

A former Winthrop University softball standout has turned entrepreneur, launching her own business and a nonprofit mentoring program to help at-risk youths.

Janiva Willis, 31, whose prowess at the Eagles’ Terry Field earned her a place in the university’s athletic hall of fame, says she hopes to now make an impact by helping children and families. On Saturday, she plans to re-introduce herself to the community during a bike ride and book drive at the Winthrop athletic complex.

Her consulting firm is the Nemo Group, based in Charlotte. Willis also has launched the “iDream in Colors Tour” which is a nonprofit mission to raise money for mentoring initiatives in Rock Hill and other cities. The tour features bike-ride fundraisers across the country to inspire men to become mentors for children in their community.

Willis’ first two mentoring groups likely will launch in Rock Hill and Charlotte and engage several former Winthrop student-athletes who have a passion for community service. She also hopes to start a mentoring program in her Canadian hometown of Irishtown, New Brunswick.

Rock Hill, she said, is a great place to start the effort because it’s “a home away from home.”

Willis felt right at home in Rock Hill as an Eagles softball player before graduating in 2005. Her awards include being the NCAA’s South Carolina Woman of the Year and top 10 finalist for the NCAA’s national Woman of the Year honor. After Winthrop, she played for the Canadian National Team.

In 2007, she just missed the cut to play in the 2008 Olympics held in Beijing. While disappointing, the loss was really “a gift in disguise,” freeing up her time to pursue counseling and professional work with troubled youths, she said.

After 17 years of softball, Willis said she saw it was time to try “carrying a new torch.”

After college, she worked as a social worker at the Children’s Attention Home in Rock Hill and later at Youth Villages in Charlotte. She’s been recognized as being in the top 1 percent of professionals using the multisystemic therapy method, which seeks to address behavior issues with a holistic approach to counseling.

Though her business focuses on motivational speaking and consulting work with nonprofit groups, Willis hopes to extend her practice to include a community center in Rock Hill. She’s looking for community group or business partners, she said, to find a permanent home for local mentoring services.

Winthrop softball coach Mark Cooke is one of Willis’ early financial supporters of her mentoring program. When his former star athlete told him of her business and nonprofit plans, he said, “It’s just like anything else you do, you will succeed.”

He also helped Willis organize Saturday’s awareness event, with the help of Kirt Whiteside who brings the Queen of Diamonds softball showcase annually to Rock Hill. Players and supporters of the tournament have been asked to bring books to donate to a local school that Willis has picked to kick off a “Knowledge is Power” literacy initiative.

Known as someone “who doesn’t do anything halfway,” Willis has put her “body and soul” into helping children who come from disadvantaged or troubled backgrounds, Cooke said. Her vision for work in the Rock Hill and Charlotte area will greatly benefit the community, he said.

If he had children who needed a mentor, Cooke said, “she’d be the one I would want for them.”

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