Director of Client Outreach Services Jibby Ciric and Director of Targeted Case Management Cleveland Wester
“We didn’t have running water. We had to dig holes in the backyard just so we could go to the bathroom.”
A statement like this conjures up imagery of a long-passed era of American history or perhaps, another nation, impoverished and miles from the place we call home.
But for Community Partners Director of Targeted Case Management Cleveland Wester – the time was 40 years ago and the place was Boynton Beach.
Growing up in Section 8 housing, Wester and his family moved often. Before the age of 13, he and his six siblings had moved 12 different times.
In addition to the instability of a secure home and the detrimental effects of poverty, Wester also faced a tremendous amount of toxic stress from domestic abuse. His biological father was an alcoholic who unleashed his fury upon both his wife and children. The ricochet of gunshots was a familiar sound within the Wester house.
After his parents divorced when he was seven, Wester’s family struggled but despite all this, he persevered.
His mother insisted that he go to school every day and in fifth grade, Wester discovered that he possessed a natural athletic ability.
He joined the school’s kickball team and discovered that sports was not only his niche, but his escape.
In playing sports, Wester learned that he could be different. That he could be more, strive for better and live a life free of abuse, poverty and neglect.
As a teenager, Wester was offered multiple chances to make money through illicit means, but he turned them all down. He had a vision, a big plan he had been dreaming of since he was 12-years-old:
He ended up matriculating at Concordia University in Sewart, Nebraska – as far away from his family as he could possibly go. It was there he started playing football and discovered a way to help children by volunteering as a Big Brother.
Wester graduated with a degree in Social Work and just as he promised himself all those years ago, he went to the NFL playing as a Running Back for the Detroit Lions.
After accomplishing what he needed to as a professional athlete, Wester decided to dedicate the rest of his life to working with children and families.
He went from earning $30,000 a week to $6 an hour working as a child care worker at Michigan’s Camp Oakland but he persevered because of a promise he made to himself all those years ago.
Nineteen years later, Wester had moved up the ranks to Director of Operations and was a fundamental part of the organization. He went on to earn a MSW in social work and is currently working towards his phD.
Despite the fact that he thought he’d never return, he came back to Florida in 2010 where he worked in various social services fields - therapist in a substance abuse treatment facility, chief administrator for a foster care system – before finding a home at Community Partners.
“Now, I am doing everything I ever dreamed of,” he said. “And I am honoring that promise to that 12-year-old boy. I work in a leadership position in an organization I believe in. I still get to meet with families. I still get to make sure that our kids are fed and clothed.”
Cleveland Wester changed the odds.
“I am proof that you can make it. No matter what adversity a person faces, they can achieve their goals,” Wester said. “And if we work together, we can all help Change The Odds for our kids.”
Community Partners CEO Patrick McNamara presenting Cleveland Wester with the first annual I Am The Change Award.