By Craig Morgan, thesundevils.com Writer
When Tarence Wheeler speaks of his community service in Detroit, there is such fervor, conviction and logic in his voice that in the moment you hang up the phone, you feel compelled to stand up and act.
"He's a great speaker," said Wheeler's former Sun Devil basketball teammate, Isaac Austin, laughing, "He's very knowledgeable and very passionate, but what he's saying is real. His knowledge comes from his past. Those experiences made him who he is and helped him move forward."
Wheeler's past is an all-too-familiar tale in disadvantaged American families. His mother was addicted to drugs; his father was absent from his life in southwest Detroit.
"There were many challenges," Wheeler said. "But I had these angels in my life who came along at various points to shepherd me along the way."
Wheeler's cites his high school coach, Perry Watson, and former ASU basketball coach Steve Patterson as two of those key figures. First and foremost among them was his grandmother, Darnella Thomas, who raised Tarence.
"She was a very resourceful person in my community," he said. "She fed a lot of people who were not her children and she had an open-door policy for folks in need. When you grow up in that environment, giving becomes part of your lifestyle; part of your beliefs."
Thomas's example planted the seed for everything Wheeler has accomplished since graduating from ASU in 1991 with a degree in criminal justice.
For the past 17 years, Wheeler and former NBA star Derrick Coleman (also a Detroit native) have organized the All-Star Giveback to engage and assist disadvantaged Detroit communities. The Celebrity Thanksgiving Turkey Giveaway provided more than 3,000 turkeys and food baskets to Metro Detroit residents last year. Wheeler and Coleman have also coordinated with community leaders and businesses to provide nearly 1,000 backpacks and haircuts to Detroit area youth when school begins in the fall. They provided more than 500 coats this winter and they helped create a pair of utility assistance programs with DTE Energy that provided $850,000 for light and gas bills.
"We are grass roots. We are there," Coleman said. "The majority of the people involved in these things will show up for a photo opp but we're involved in everything from the planning, giving the food away and just talking to people.
"There's nothing wrong with just writing a check. It helps you fulfill the mission, but to take time out and get engaged, to get involved, that's when people get the opportunity to see you, to connect with you and that's inspiring. That gives people hope."
Wheeler's work in Detroit isn’t his first philanthropic venture. While playing overseas in Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela, he regularly took kids to games and left shoes, T-shirts and shorts for them because it was hard for them to afford the apparel.
Wheeler also ran the Isaac Austin Foundation during Austin's nine-year NBA career, and the two are in the planning stages of a national campaign for economic development in several urban areas across the United States.
Wheeler opted to return to his Detroit roots when his grandmother fell ill and he went back to care for her.
"She took a turn for the worse and then she was gone," Wheeler said. "I remember taking a drive around my community after she passed away and I wasn't pleased at what I was seeing. I thought 'we can't all get a college degree and then just move away.' Once you’re successful you have to be significant."
Wheeler performs most of his philanthropic works after his day job as the River Rouge Public Schools' Director of Community Outreach and Parent Engagement.
"That's my 9 to 5," he said, laughing. "The community serve is my 5 to 9."
Wheeler has made such an impact in Detroit that on April 15, FBI Director James B. Comey will present him with the 2015 Director’s Community Leadership Award at the FBI Education Center, J.E. Hoover Building, in Washington D.C.
Wheeler called the award humbling before deflecting the attention.
"It's not about me. It’s about young people and making them believe someone cares about them," he said. "Kids don't want sympathy. They want empathetic leadership."You have to be committed to this. You can't just be interested. When you’re interested you go about it half-hearted but when you're committed, that means you’re going to do all you can. When I die I'm leaving this tank empty."