Growing up as the only African-American family in Irish Town, New Brunswick in Canada, Jay Willis spent the majority of her childhood playing sports because of her concerns to fit in. Her family moved from Toronto when she was 6-years-old to an area where neighbors gave them strange looks for being different. Her fear was short lived after she cracked her first joke and displayed her skills in sports to her classmates. She won the title of class clown and go-to chosen team member.
Willis main sport in school was softball. Her senior year of high school, like many other student athletes, she distributed softball videos for recruitment to different colleges and universities. However, a recruiter for Winthrop University spotted her playing at the Canada Games. After a visit to the campus, she received an athletic scholarship to attend the Big South Conference institution. Her experience at the campus would change her experience, and ultimately open new doors for the then-freshman. She was actively involved in various organizations and projects including serving as peer mentor, volunteer for the Boys & Girls Club of York County, referee of the intramural sports, and many others.
“I can’t tell you how I got here, but it was fun,” she said. “I’ve had my blessings (sports), and I want to reach people in a different way.”
Besides sports, there were two other things she loved – music and people. However, due to her strength in sports, it became a part of her which pushed the other driving forces to the end field until she picked it up for the next inning.
Willis’ senior year at the university, she realized that she no longer wanted to be an athletic trainer. She went back to Winthrop for her master’s degree in social work because she wanted to help people. The career path was easy for her because she was the go-to person that her friends sought for advice. She fulfilled her reached her passion for working with people.
The now 31-year-old experienced monumental moments especially during her softball career both college and professionally from being recognized as the NCAA Women of the Year in South Carolina and ranked top 10 nationally in 2005 to playing on the national Canadian softball team in 2005 and 2007. However, one of her biggest moments was being invited by Winthrop University’s Alumni Association to serve as the keynote speaker at the 2013 Convocation. Convocation is a tradition at the university for incoming freshmen. They will walk the blue line to begin their first year at the school. It was the same line Willis walked her freshman year at the university.
With a hint of anxiety, Willis stood to the podium and cracked her first joke to the thousands of attendees in the auditorium.
“I shared what it meant to me,” she said. “The Winthrop community became family.”
“I challenged them to experience Winthrop like I did,” she continued.
Once she finished her speech, she received a standing ovation. It was a reality check that she was worthy of the opportunity.
“Afterwards, people said Jay, you were meant to do this,” she said.
The birth of NEMO
On January 23, 2014 at 9:23 PM, Willis was in mid-soul seeking mode. She had a vision of a new millennial movement to save the youth especially black males. She started sharing this idea on Facebook with her friends and colleagues.
Willis created NEMO as a way to utilize her creative juices to reach people through music and culture. NEMO, which stands for Nurturance Empowerment Motivation Organization, was spearheaded by the concept of the Disney movie “Finding Nemo” because the little odd-finned fish was seeking independence and self-identity during his exploration. The organization is working with local businesses and community leaders to spread the awareness of the movement to “create a reality of positivity.”
In July, NEMO will kick off iDream in Color Tour created by Willis and her business associates to inspire, educate, and motivate individuals, families, and communities using positive information, music, and empowering. The tour will take place throughout the entire year in schools, businesses, and others in the Carolinas and nearby areas. She and her associates will speak to youth and their families to connect and be a village for the generations to come.
“We are the connectors.” The millennial generations are able to relate with the parents and the youth.
Passion for helping people
The 31-year-old is passionate about helping people be in the moment and see different experiences while putting smiles on people’s faces with music playing the background. Music is her other love. Her heart beats to the rhythm and rhymes of the melodic tunes as she learns another lesson. It’s one of her driving forces, which is an important factor of NEMO. The organization is working with musicians and artists to build the free expression and connection in a diverse community.
“Hope to leave a legacy”
In 2008, Willis’ hometown named their community softball fields in her honor. She was awarded the Multisystemic Therapy Sustainable Excellence Award in 2013 while working as a clinical supervisor at Youth Villages, which is an at-risk facility for teens besides her other athletic accolades. She wants to leave a legacy of her past, present and future work, the softball player said.
“I hope to be an example for people to see that I can still smile despite adversity,” she said. “My biggest challenge was to believe in myself, the way that people saw me.”
She left her job and stepped out on faith in pursuit of just that.
“Life brought a few blows,” she added. “But I can see the end result. I feel like I just kicked open the door to a new journey.”
NEMO is Respect
The movement of NEMO is to congregate with a variety of people who have different career paths, opinions, and beliefs yet respecting the differences that they bring to the table. Her core team and friends respect their individual wishes and lifts each other up.
“It comes out in our work and collaboration,” she added.
Willis believes that as an individual if you respect yourself then you become more aware to respect others.
In her new passion of motivational speaking, Willis said that respect is about the ability to make positive changes and show that individuals do matter.
Empowered by the fuel from her circle
The past NCAA Woman of the Year has a circle of family and friends including her mother who collectively empower her to continue her hunger and desire to use her talents for a greater good.
“I’m not done yet. I have a lot more talents that God gave me,” she said. “I’m gaining knowledge and facing fears.”
Ambition for greatness
Willis gives every project or task 100 percent and being great while doing it. She wants her legacy to display her greatness and impacts that she’s made while making a difference in the community. Through NEMO and other ventures, she is designing and creating programs for the disadvantaged and disempowered.
“That’s what I’m here for—to voice for them and voice for myself,” Willis said.