Willie Chavez was 15 years old the first time he was shot.
Raised by a single mother on the South Side of Chicago amid gangs and violence, he fell in with the wrong crowd and was in and out of prison starting at age 15, a cycle that continued until his early twenties. He was shot again when he was 20.
“I pretty much experienced all the bad things in life,” Willie said. “I drifted toward the wrong people, and I made some really bad decisions.”
His is a story of struggle and survival, and it’s one that is clearly divided into two sections: before the birth of his son, and after. Both have made him the man he is today — a 29-year-old student at Saint Xavier University — and both continue to shape him: he’s working to prevent others from following his path, and he recently found out that his son has leukemia.
All About Survival
Despite repeated incarcerations, Willie received his GED in boot camp in 2006 and enrolled at Harold Washington College as a first-generation college student with his 18-year-old peers in 2007. Financial troubles led to him dropping out in 2009, so he began finding work through temp agencies.
His son, Julian, was born in 2010.
“It completely changed my life,” he said. “I started trying to find myself.”
In 2014, Willie was working in a freezer packaging cold vegetables for distribution. The physical demands were difficult, given his prior gunshot wounds. He thought of his son, and of his own childhood. He decided to give college another try.
He quit his job and went straight to Richard J. Daley College. He didn’t have a plan; he didn’t even know what he wanted to major in.
“At that point, it was all about survival,” he said. “I was lost in life. I had no sense of direction, had doubts, was scared of criticism, and had enormous fears of failure.”
Willie was also alone. He’d lost most of his friends when he decided to turn his life around. He was nervous but determined; and at Daley, he found the support group he needed.
He didn’t think much of his invitation to join Phi Theta Kappa at first — he wasn’t familiar with the organization. But a girl in class told him about it, so he went to check out the room where the PTK members on his campus hung out. There, he met advisor Cassandra Powell and, soon after, became a member.
Willie also started finding direction. He chose to major in psychology and served as Vice President of the Psychology Club.
“I wanted to know more about why I did the things I’d done in my life…everything that played into it,” he said. “And, I wanted to keep others — especially youth — from drifting into that same lifestyle.”
A Better Person
Willie graduated from Daley in 2016 with a 3.8 GPA. While there, he participated in the work study program, was on the Dean’s List, and was in the Chicago Scholars program.
He also received an $18,000 per year renewable Phi Theta Kappa transfer scholarship to Saint Xavier. After his first year there, he has a 4.0 GPA and is on track to complete his bachelor’s degree in psychology with a minor in political science in May 2018.
“It’s been hard, but my son is worth it,” he said.
Willie spent the spring 2017 semester interning with Offender Aid and Restoration (OAR) in Arlington, Virginia, where he served as a case manager for 60 juvenile and adult offenders completing community service hours. He also went to school one day a week at the Washington Internship Institute in Washington, D.C.
He found it rewarding and “surreal” to be on “the other side of the aisle” in court. It was also his first time traveling that far from home, being on his own, and meeting other people from around the country.
“It’s exactly what I want to do career-wise in Chicago,” he said. “At the end of the day, I’m a better person for it.”
Willie still lives in Chicago’s South Side. The neighborhood hasn’t changed, but he has — he shares his story with local youth to keep them away from gangs, and he helps old friends get their GEDs and find jobs.
He’s working to get his record expunged and hopes to get pardoned from the Illinois governor — while he readily admits that he’s made mistakes, he doesn’t want them to haunt him the rest of his life.
Willie is also working nights so he can be with Julian for his chemo treatments. He’s worried about his final year of school, but he’s determined to find a way to finish — again, for his son.
“I’m trying to stay positive, because I’ve come this far,” he said. “We’re going to fight this together.”