'Senator' Makes a Difference

'Senator' Makes a Difference

YMCA's Wendall Fisher connects people with services.

He goes by Wendall T. Fisher because of the love he feels for his father. "T" for Thomas Fisher, the same man who saddled him with the moniker "Senator" during his formative years.

How he hated that nickname. How it suits him to a "T" now.

Thomas Fisher, who passed away in 2000, called his son "Senator Fog Bound," because the youngster was such a talker. "He called me 'Senator' all my life. I hated it," Fisher recalled. "I could talk myself out of anything, until it came to my Dad."

Not surprisingly, Fisher, 50, became a motivational speaker. "I don't mind it now," he said. "My Dad would be proud."

Fisher, associate executive director of the YMCA for the past two years, uses his gift of gab to help children, teenagers and parents through troubled times and to promote the YMCA.

"Everything you see in front of you was from my Dad and my Mom," said Fisher, his 6'3" solid frame leaning back in a red swivel office chair. "I'm a lot like Dad. My brothers look like him. I act like him."

Fisher lives by his father's life-long philosophy. "He would say there are two choices in life: You either do or you don't. You will or you won't."

In other words, there is no gray area. "Either you break your word or you don't," he said.

It's the kind of advice he shares with the people he assists.

Max Kipfer, a member of the Loudoun County YMCA board of directors, said Fisher is "a special human being. He works to improve the quality of life for others. "It is something he carries with him in everything he does."

Carolyn Ecker, chairwoman of the board, said most people are not aware of the time Fisher spends on projects outside his usual responsibilities. "A couple of teenagers show up at the 'Y,' and he'll find a home for them," she said. "He is tireless in his efforts to make life better for individuals and groups in Loudoun County."

Like many of the youngsters he helps, Fisher has come a long way since his childhood years in Fredericksburg. He was the middle son in a family of three boys. "I didn't make my mark in elementary or high school," he said. "My brothers were outgoing. I was short, fat. … a late bloomer."

He must have made up for lost time during his adulthood. In the 1990s, he was named Loudoun County "Citizen of the Year" twice.

AFTER HIGH SCHOOL, Fisher attended Delaware State University, with the goal of counseling prison inmates. He did his internship at Symrna State Prison in Symrna, Del. He quickly learned that was not his vocation. "I was treated like the prisoners," he said. "I had to subject myself to a search every day."

Fisher met his wife of 30 years, Kendall, at the university. They have two children, Deschaun, a mechanical engineer, and Damien, a pharmacist. Both are graduates of Park View High School in Sterling.

After the internship, he landed a job at CloseUp Foundation, which brought high school students together to learn about the judicial, executive and legislative branches of government. He worked under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. "Part of my job was to give talks on current events, give legislative briefings and to introduce congressmen," he said. "That basically honed my skills for speaking publicly."

He also learned to talk to youth in a way that he could be understood, which served as a basis for his work at the YMCA.

Fisher lost that job due to budget cuts. He worked for Gino's restaurant, which was sold to Marriott. He worked for Marriott, then took a job training managers to run Earl's Video stores. He was laid off seven years later.

"THAT'S WHEN we found our way to Loudoun County," he said. He worked as a substitute teacher at Broad Run High School in 1988. A year later, he moonlighted at night, driving a Hertz bus, and served as a school restriction teacher at Loudoun County High School by day.

"I was the one who gave them pain and discipline," he said, with a smile. "I actually turned the class around. I treated them with respect, taught them how to cope with what was happening in their lives so they could stay in class."

That position lasted two and a half years, Fisher said. "This was one of the best experiences in my life."

He began to realize he had a positive effect on the students. "For some reason or another, they liked my voice, how I treated them, that I did not degrade them," he recalled. "That was a major lesson in life. You can turn the worst situation into a positive experience."

From there, Fisher moved onto a job as a therapeutic counselor at the Loudoun County Youth Shelter, which serves as a temporary home for children who can no longer live with their parents. The job opened his eyes to what a lot of youngsters were going through. "I entered a brand new world where our children are not being taken care of," he said. "The biggest problem was at nighttime. That's when they felt unsafe. They had trouble going to sleep and trusting people."

Fisher said the occurrence reinforced his belief that "our children need to be taken care of."

HIS WORK at the Youth Shelter led to an opportunity to serve on the YMCA board of directors in 1992. A year later, Jan Halpin, who was running the organization, offered him a job as a "Y" outreach director. That served as a springboard for him to run for the School Board. He served on the School Board from 1995 to 1999, and lost a bid for re-election in 2000. That same year, he was promoted to senior program director at the "Y."

As he built his career, Fisher came to know his strengths. "Working with children is what I'm really good at," he said.

Kipfer would agree. "Wendall has been to places and seen places in Loudoun County that others don't know or believe that exist. He has been to some of the worst homes in the county, people who have tremendous family problems, economic problems. He has been called in to do intervention," Kipfer said. "He doesn't want to see kids in those kinds of predicaments."

Kipfer said Fisher matches adult mentors with single parent households through the YMCA Big Friends program. "When you have seen it and you accept it, then you know the only way you can change it is to do something about it," Kipfer said. "It motivates him to talk about it and put it on the forefront in everything he says."

Fisher is called to do motivational speaking several times a month. He said he often uses the same opener with students: "Those who consider themselves attractive, please raise their hand."

It gets them to think independently instead of looking left or right for the answers, he said.

"Students have a rough time with that question. So do adults," he said. "Students think they are gauged by others based on their attractiveness."

He also asks youngsters about what they believe in outside of God. "They struggle with that question."

He used thought-provoking questions to fuel discussions during a forum he facilitated at Loudoun high schools from 1993 to 2002. "What the forum was about was to get students into a room to talk about some very tough issues while listening and being respectful."

Students who had opinions but usually did not talk openly about them, finally found a safe place, he said.

A decade later, some of those same Loudoun students have thanked Fisher for the experience.

THE SCHOOL BOARD cut funding for the forum, and the program ended. But Fisher's outreach work continued. Recently he spoke at a public meeting, providing tips and resources for parents on how to keep their children away from drugs, gangs and other disruptive behavior. He said he understands how hard their job is. "They all want to do the right thing," she said. "Even parents who make some mistakes, they want to be good parents."

He tells adults that he has success with youth because he always establishes eye contact and shakes their hand. When parents and children are not getting along, he intervenes.

"I give them tools and bring their child into the office," he said. "I am not a counselor. We set out what the actual issues are so the parents can reach out to organizations that can really help. We establish lines of respect."

Ecker said Fisher "makes things happen." She has seen him meet with a group of teens, pick up a hat and do a quick lesson on how they can make a difference with younger children. "I was so taken by what he did and said. I asked him, 'When did you dream that up? He said, 'When I saw the hat.'"

Fisher, in keeping with the YMCA mission, brings parents and children together and helps to strengthen their relations.

Kipfer said Fisher is passionate about his work. "He does it because he believes so deeply in what he does. He makes the difference."