Two Fairfax innovators prove that ideas can be homegrown

Two longtime residents of Cleveland's Fairfax neighborhood—Delesia Robinson, a registered nurse, and Tim Willis, a self-taught engineer—have developed innovative ways to address the unique needs of their community.

Robinson first learned about the unmet needs of women in transition, such as homelessness, foster care, and concentrated poverty, from her daughter, Carmen, who had listened to speakers at Ursuline College. Trained as a medical surgical nurse, Robinson was already a case manager for CareSource, providing public health programs. She was passionate about building connections for those in need.

Delesia Robinson, far right, set up her nonprofit in 2013, Pride Among Daughters and Sisters to provide feminine hygiene products for women and girlsThrough timely assistance from PNC Fairfax Connection and SCORE, Robinson set up her nonprofit in 2013, Pride Among Daughters and Sisters, or PADS, to provide feminine hygiene products for women and girls. "We are blessed to have products always available,” Robinson says. “Now that everyone is more aware of this need, the product donations just keep coming."

To expand its reach, PADS has collaborated with Dress for Success, The Hunger Network of Greater Cleveland, University Settlement, and many other organizations.

“When personal care needs have been met, girls and women can experience pride, dignity, and confidence in school, at work, and in life,” Robinson says.

Her organization has grown in scope to reach out to pre-teen girls and aging female residents. PADS works to create awareness about body image and health for both groups and provides incontinence products for the older women.

"We want to support girls and women, to [teach them to] respect their bodies," says Robinson.

Tim Willis is also passionate about connection and education. Cars zoom by his lot on East 83rd Street, honking, with arms waving out of the windows, as he operates his 14-foot red and yellow dragon robot by remote control. Everyone knows Willis—and he knows their cars. 

From national monster truck rallies to local touch-a-truck community events, Willis is widely known as an automotive innovator. Red and yellow monster trucks and silver robots tower over his lot, a few accented by paint dripping down the sides. He selected “red ketchup and yellow mustard” as his signature colors to stand out at rallies. 

Willis discovered his talent for innovation when he was a teenager. He feared a short life span after his father and three siblings succumbed to a rare genetic disorder, Marfan Syndrome. Leaving East Technical High School after ninth grade, Willis followed his passion for connecting automotive parts, even discarded metal that others might see as junk. He loved to ask “how can I repurpose this thing?”

Automotive innovator Tim WillisWillis earned money by learning car repair from the garage that had purchased his father’s 1969 Nova. Willis bought back the car back and began bolting on parts to transform it into a race car.  

Like most innovators, Willis’ ideas kept growing. He built his first robot based on the spider from the movie "Wild Wild West." “The bigger the parts, the more strength you need, so I had to learn how to weld steel,” he says. His creations grew in scope as he read books and watched automotive workers in the field.

Today, his hand-crafted monster cars, trucks, and robots are stored in garages on both sides of Cleveland. Parts collected from junkyards are neatly categorized in floor-to-ceiling bins throughout the three buildings that make up his workshop.  

Fairfax families come by the workshop to inspire their children to work with their hands. Willis often gets invited to schools to talk about the science and math behind his innovations. “I have to measure my creations to fit with transportation laws,” he says. “And I have to calculate pressure, rotation, and force to be able to work with the laws of physics.”

Research-backed, capital investment drives change around the globe. But these innovators prove that comprehensive educational solutions can also start right at home with enough time, collaboration, and a passion for change.

This article is part of our On the Ground - Fairfax community reporting project in partnership with Fairfax Renaissance Development Corporation, Cleveland Clinic, PNC Bank, Greater Cleveland Partnership, Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, and Cleveland Development Advisors. Read the rest of our coverage here.

Read more articles by Cindy Hill.

Cindy Hill is a freelance writer based in Shaker Heights. She enjoys telling the stories of impact makers—the organizations and businesses that keep Cleveland at the forefront of innovation. For more than 22 years, she has produced award-winning curriculum, proposals, books, and articles, driven by her insatiable curiosity to find out “what’s next.”