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When Hans Giller, 34, is asked where he's from, the answer is neither as easy nor as quick as expected.
It comes out hesitantly, mainly because he can't think of a place he most calls home.
“I'm from a lot of places,” he says, ticking them off: Massachusetts. Pennsylvania. Los Angeles. Washington. New York City.
And now Toledo.
For Mr. Giller, a four-year resident of the area and the assistant director of the East Toledo Family Center, home is wherever he's needed.
As a social service worker, he has spent 12 years helping youth stay out of trouble and discover the positive aspects of city life.
He's known teenagers who died defending their gangs and seen adolescents throw away everything they have because of drugs and violence.
But he's also seen high school dropouts leave their gangs for college, at-risk children happily give back to their communities, and poor youth prosper through hard work.
“There are a lot of faces and names out there that continue to drive me,” Mr. Giller said.
His work is rewarding and demanding. It's also difficult because, unlike other careers, he said, “When you work with kids, you can't always see the results of your work.”
A major focus of Mr. Giller's work at the family center is to give children and youths the chance to do things they've never done before - experience more of the finer things in life and “dream bigger than what kids nowadays are dreaming.”
During his four years in East Toledo, Mr. Giller's energy and dedication have helped the family center focus more on youths and on programs that help them realize their potential.
“He has overseen many of the youth programs in the last couple of years, and there has been expansion of those programs,” said Tim Yenrick, the center's executive director.
“I think his prior experiences working in tough neighborhoods have provided him experience in reaching out to the different kids that we have to work with. We get kids from all walks of life.”
Mr. Yenrick said Mr. Giller's commitment to East Toledo runs deep. He spends eight hours a day at the family center and the rest of his time helping his wife, who is a pastor at St. Mark's Lutheran Church on Woodville Road. His family lives in East Toledo.
“I would say that they have put their roots in East Toledo, and I think they are trying to make it a better place to live,” Mr. Yenrick said.
Mr. Giller is quick to defend East Toledo. He says anyone who spends time on the city's east side knows it's a special place.
“It's a shame because [others] don't see what is going on here. They don't see the sense of community pride,” he said. “You go to a sporting event, and it's packed with kids and families.”
The family center, which runs largely off grants, tries to make its programs affordable for everyone. To make activities like its $300-summer trip available to youths, the children raise most of their own money through fund-raisers. Mr. Giller believes a collaboration among families, schools, churches, and organizations like the Family Center is one of the things that keep East Toledo strong.
The Family Center offers a preschool program for 3-to-5-year-olds with Toledo Public Schools and Toledo Head Start; a summer camp program; a latchkey program during the school year, and activities designed to increase parenting skills and parent-child interaction.
It reaches out to youths of all ages, and many of the programs are in athletics - basketball, football, cheerleading, karate, soccer - or enrichment programs for at-risk and troubled youths, like BERT, a summer program in which children study the Bible, learn how to garden, play games, watch movies, and explore what the city has to offer.
The programs are designed to keep kids busy so they don't have time for negative activities.
In addition, Mr. Giller hopes the programs act as a substitute to gangs, providing the same things youngsters think such groups provide - protection, support, friends, and family - without the negative consequences.
There are also alternative schools and detention centers as well as behavioral and mentoring programs for at-risk children having difficulty in school and older youths on probation.
“If you could find a kid that is not at risk, I'd be really glad to meet him or her,” he said. “I think they're all at risk. There are a lot of choices out there, a lot of temptations.”
Mr. Giller said he believes the most important way to keep kids heading in the right direction is to show them that people do care.