The mission of Bears Tomorrow is simple. As stated on its Web site (www.bearstomorrow.com), Bob Buckley started the program “to help student athletes in Independence, especially those bound for William Chrisman, develop the skills they need to compete effectively at the high school level.”

Waynieka Wheeler sat in the cafeteria at William Chrisman High School and smiled.

“I wonder where I’d be right now without Bob Buckley and Bears Tomorrow,” the William Chrisman freshman said as youngsters bused the long tables and cleared the dishes so more fans could take part in a spaghetti dinner fundraiser.

“I know I wouldn’t be here tonight. And I don’t know if I’d be in school. This program has done something for my life. It has made me feel special, and when I don’t feel like going to school, I still go because of Bears Tomorrow and Bob. I wouldn’t want to let anyone down, because of all they have done for me.”

The mission of Bears Tomorrow is simple. As stated on its Web site (www.bearstomorrow.com), Buckley started the program “to help student athletes in Independence, especially those bound for William Chrisman, develop the skills they need to compete effectively at the high school level.”

 It’s a process that starts by providing good coaching and development of fundamentals.

It all began in 2007 when Buckley, a partner in the law firm White, Allinder, Graham and Buckley, saw a need to help youngsters in the Chrisman part of the Independence School District.

“Bob had a vision for William Chrisman High School, a very special vision,” Chrisman boys basketball coach John Vickers said. “He began the Bears Tomorrow program on his own. He even funded it himself. And now, we’re seeing the results of what he started.”

Wheeler is expected to be a standout track and field performer this spring and she plays on the girls junior varsity basketball squad.

Two Bears Tomorrow alum, Richard Graham and Levi McGrew play freshman boys basketball.

“And we’re going to keep getting more and more kids from the program into our high school program,” Vickers said. “That was Bob’s dream, and now, it’s becoming a reality.”

As supporters fill their plates with spaghetti and the youngsters gather around the frozen yogurt machine, Buckley talks about his passion.

“I’ve been the (public address) voice of the Bears football and basketball programs the past 10 years, and I knew we needed something like Bears Tomorrow,” Buckley said. “So I talked to Dr. (Jim) Hinson (superintendent of the Independence School District).

“We started the Bears Tomorrow program with the help of a lot of individuals from my church (Maywood Baptist) who felt the same way I did.”

Soon, the volunteers were offering rides to any boy or girl in the fourth through seventh grade (boys) and fifth through seventh grade (girls) who wanted to visit the William Chrisman gym to learn more about basketball and life.

“I bet I’ve been to Nieka’s (Waynieka) home 50 or 100 times,” Buckley said with a touch of emotion in his voice. “It brings me to tears to see all these young people here tonight.

“To think of all the young people we have reached out to is very special. I started this program because I didn’t believe opportunity should be determined by where you live.

“Everyone deserves an opportunity, and the kids in our program are making the most of that opportunity.”

Bears Tomorrow meets from 3:30 to 8 p.m. every Sunday and the program now has a variety of teams playing in leagues at the Sports Lodge in Independence.

“This program gave me a new life,” Wheeler said. “It didn’t just turn my life around, it gave me a new life. How do you thank someone for that?”

Buckley had the answer.

“You graduate and you make the most of every opportunity you have,” he said, his voice cracking.

Thanks to Bob Buckley, tomorrow is looking better every day.