A thin, worn-out-looking woman weeps as she embraces her eighteen-year-old son in the security line at Detroit Metro airport. “My baby going! My baby going!” Exasperated but patient, Ryan Richmond hugs his mother back and murmurs, “Mama, calm down. I’ll be OK.”

Ryan is leaving for Arizona Western Community College in the company of Paul Johnson, the program director of Peace Neighborhood Center. Watching is Johnson’s boss, Peace executive director Bonnie Billups, whose emotional and practical support made this journey possible. Billups’ strong baritone cuts through the mother’s sobs, reminding Ryan, “You let us know if you need more money for supplies.” Johnson then tells the young man that he will have to remove his shoes, to clear security. Ryan looks surprised. The lifelong Ann Arbor kid and Pioneer High grad has never flown before.

Launching “Peace kids” like Ryan into promising futures is enormously satisfying for Billups, forty-nine. Except for six years on the LA music scene in his twenties, he’s spent his career at the west side community center. Starting as a teenage program assistant, he rose to second in command to longtime Peace director Rose Martin, then took over the top job when she retired four years ago.

Martin was an inspired and inspiring advocate for the center’s poor, predominantly black clients, and her many admirers couldn’t imagine Peace without her. But though less dramatic than his former boss, Billups is an equally strong individual. He’s put his own stamp on Peace, where he does everything from hiring and firing staff to driving the van that brings kids from local apartments and housing projects to the center on North Maple Road.

A big guy with a grizzled chin, Billups usually dresses casually in T-shirts and slacks. This average-Joe persona disappears as soon as he talks; he’s analytical, eloquent, and a sympathetic and reassuring listener.

Billups’ usual attitude is so upbeat that when, earlier this year, he sounded unhappy in a telephone conversation with a longtime supporter, the caller asked what was wrong. Billups said he was worrying about the center’s money problems: the state’s economic freefall had cut donations, even as requests for help doubled.

“Would a $20,000 check make you feel better?” asked the caller. The gift allowed the center’s popular summer day camp to accept every kid who applied this year.

Of the several hundred adults and youths who come to Peace each year, Billups knows a surprising number by name and often can recite their family histories as well. Kids color on the floor of his office, he takes calls at all hours, and he’s personally housed many people in crisis. Married two years ago to Shelley Billups, who works at Comcast, he describes himself as the “father of twelve”–his wife’s four from a previous marriage, plus eight “Peace kids,” now ages sixteen to twenty-four, who lived with him as unofficial foster children.

Billups’ commitment inspires Peace supporters like board member Amy Pachera. With awe in her voice, she describes him as “bigger than life. The world would be such an amazing place if more of us had a piece of Bonnie in ourselves.”

Billups rolls his eyes at such accolades. “I’m no saint. I’ve got plenty of faults,” he insists, mentioning, for one, that his temper can run free. Although he soothed Ryan’s sobbing mom all the way back from the airport, he snapped when she called him several days later at home, fretting about some snag in her son’s financial aid package. “I cussed at her,” he says sheepishly.

Peace Neighborhood Center came into being in 1971, driven by hope, fear, and a dose of the era’s heady idealism. The recent construction of city housing projects on both North and South Maple had alarmed some nearby homeowners. To ease tensions, a few neighborhood moms began meeting at the former Peace Lutheran Church with women moving into the projects. The meetings led to a day care program. Two other Lutheran churches, Zion and Trinity, assumed the building’s mortgage from Peace Lutheran and turned it and its neighboring parsonage (now used to house a formerly homeless family) over to the new center for $1 annual rent. (Later, they donated both buildings and the land.)

In 1976, Martin became Peace’s first full-time director. She added new services, including job training and substance abuse counseling. Ten years ago, with the roof leaking and the building bursting at the seams, Billups spearheaded an eighteen-month fund-raising campaign that provided money to add on 8,000 square feet to the original 4,000-square-foot building.

The low-slung brick structure with charming green peaks on the roof is both a busy community center and a sanctuary for people with nowhere to turn. Once, when I was in Billups’ office, I saw a Post-It note with a message asking if he could find a car for a client. Another time a coworker called out that someone needed help to prevent her utilities from being turned off. “I’ll give her a call,” Billups responded matter-of-factly.

The largest share of Peace’s approximately $600,000 budget, though, goes to youth programs. What makes these something more than a collection of wholesome time-killing activities is the philosophy behind them: to break the cycle of poverty. Billups illustrates the challenge by recalling one eleven-year-old girl who told him, “I can’t wait till I’m fourteen. I can have a baby.”

“Everyone in her neighborhood had a baby by fourteen,” he says. “That was the only vision she had of herself.” Peace staff have tried to expand the kids’ horizons without indulging their media-fed fantasies. Says Billups, “We tell them, ‘You have a better chance of becoming a surgeon than of making the NFL.’ “

Activities for elementary age kids emphasize such themes as responsibility and communication. Day camp counselors recognize children who do something thoughtful, like offering to share their lunch with another child or being friendly to a visiting reporter. Middle school kids give back to the community with activities like volunteering for a rabbit sanctuary and visiting homes for the elderly. They also participate in separate guy and girl discussion groups on issues like body size and peer pressure. For middle and high school students, a “College/Career Club” encourages setting long-term goals.

Departures like Ryan’s are a joy for the staff. Peace grads who land in trouble cause sadness, though Billups constantly reminds his staff that while they’re “planting seeds,” the ultimate “crop” is beyond their control. “Bright kids make some stupid, stupid choices,” he stresses. He recalls one Peace grad now in his twenties who, despite obvious academic gifts, sought status as “the life of the party.” Ultimately, he got caught up with his brother’s drug selling and is now serving an eight-year prison term. “I should have listened to you,” he told Billups during a recent phone call.

At an orientation for summer camp counselors, he is alternately encouraging and stern. “Your job is to make sure 140 people have a safe experience,” he stresses. He makes it clear that everyone working at Peace is expected to do anything. “Please don’t get off if I tell you…I need that floor mopped. I’m the executive director–I drive buses and clean toilets!” Though he encourages them to provide positive direction–for example, by telling kids “please walk” rather than “don’t run”–he grins and allows there will be slip-ups: “After five weeks, you’ll be telling them, ‘Boy, did I tell you to sit down?’ ”

“Bonnie’s really strict, but the kids love him,” counselor Nikon Choux says after the session. When he comes into a room, “their faces shine.”

An articulate, attractive eighteen-year-old, Choux is biracial–or as he puts it, “I’m black and white.” He appears to be in a good place now, after a turbulent high school experience he’d prefer not to dwell on, except to say his problems “started with a girlfriend.” Eager to get out of the state he’s lived in all his life, he plans to attend Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York, next year.

Choux grew up without a mother and recalls that Billups frequently helped negotiate the difficulties he had with his dad, meeting with him alone and with both father and son. Peace, he says, became a “second home. I feel like it’s safe here.” Without Billups’ help, he says, “I wouldn’t have graduated from high school…He is my hero.”

I heard variations of Choux’s story from several others, including Paul Johnson, the staffer who escorted Ryan to Arizona. Lithe, snapping with confidence, his smile just short of cocky, Johnson was elected prom king at Pioneer in 1995. He graduated from Southern University in Baton Rouge with a teaching certificate and taught second grade in Atlanta and administered after-school programs in New York City before returning to Ann Arbor and Peace. Now thirty-one and engaged to a U-M grad student, he wants eventually to design coursework appropriate for low-income kids.

It could have turned out otherwise. Johnson grew up at Pine Lake Village in the early 1980s, when crack cocaine was a serious problem. “A lot of my friends ended up going to jail or getting shot,” he says. He recalls how his older brother, hungry for images of successful black families, was glued to The Cosby Show. His single mother did her best, but Peace, and Billups in particular, diverted him from the neighborhood’s dangerous temptations, encouraging his involvement in a teen hip-hop group and helping him record his music. Today, Johnson is so popular that the Peace summer camp kids he supervised proudly named themselves “Paul’s Group.”

Billups moved to Ann Arbor on a very snowy New Year’s Day, 1969, when he was eight. (Born in St. Louis and named after his dad, he says that “Bonnie” as a boy’s name is more common in the South.) His parents moved because relatives here told them how good the Ann Arbor schools were. His father held various jobs, including bus driver and janitor for the Ann Arbor Community Center, before retiring as a Teamster at Killins Concrete. His mother assembled filters at Gelman Sciences.

Billups’ connection to Peace began when he was about twelve. Martin, then running a federally funded program called Operation Education, hired his dad to drive a busload of low-income adolescent boys to Manistee. Bonnie tagged along. But after his dad dropped the kids off for their four-day campout, some boys began to act wild, intimidating three college volunteers who were supposed to supervise the outing. The collegians panicked and drove away in their Volkswagen Beetle.

Martin was stuck in the campground with fifty kids. Unfazed, she asked who in the group had gone camping before. Billups and one other boy raised their hands. They showed the rest how to light a fire and became de facto counselors.

“I saw things in him,” Martin recalls. Three years later, when she became Peace director, she hired Billups, then fifteen, as a program assistant.

Billups was more fortunate than many of the kids he supervised: his family was intact, and both parents emphasized the importance of schooling and encouraged his musical talents (he sings and plays saxophone and guitar). But his father’s weekend drinking bouts shadowed the household, and that memory, plus his later embrace of the Baha’i faith, made Billups decide not to drink–“I never wanted to lose control,” he recalls.

Still, Billups describes his father, who died two years ago, as a loving family man and accepts “that’s the father I had. He was the best father and the right father for me.” He freely shares his experiences with Peace kids struggling with their own parents’ addictions.

After graduating from Huron in 1979, Billups kept working at Peace while attending Eastern for a couple of years, dropping out when he decided to move to LA and try to make it in music. He had some success, writing music for commercials and once singing at the Hollywood Bowl, but he was turned off “by the drug use, the insecurity” of the industry. He also missed his family. Returning to work at Peace, he soon found himself not lighting a fire for Martin but helping her put one out.

Martin was “incredibly good at helping people, but she didn’t really enjoy the administrative part,” says longtime Peace backer Monty Vincent. When an unhappy board member publicized bookkeeping inconsistencies, HUD audited the center’s use of federal block grant funds. Although a county prosecutor described the finances as “horribly mismanaged,” nothing showed that Martin had benefited personally, and no one was charged with any crime. But extensive Ann Arbor News coverage caused donations to spiral down–some supporters were particularly indignant that a few women used the stipends they earned for completing a Peace parenting program to see a male strip show in Windsor.

Billups, fiercely loyal to Martin, looks exasperated when the long-ago controversy comes up. Recalling that Peace’s records had been moved to the City Center building during the audit, he says that retired banker and Peace friend “Spud Watkins, God bless his soul, and I spent six months at the bottom of the City Center building looking through every check.” Out of about half a million in HUD money over a three-year period, he says, less than $40,000 appeared to have been used in violation of HUD guidelines. Peace reorganized, and Billups points out that just a few years after the scandal it won an award for excellence in nonprofit management.

Peace depends entirely on donations and grants–all of its programs are free to Washtenaw County residents except for the summer day camp, which costs $50. So when the economy started to tank, the Peace board had to act quickly. From 2008 to 2009, it slashed expenses from more than $800,000 to less than $700,000, reducing some programs (the eight-week day camp went to six weeks), not replacing departing staff or buying new vehicles, and requiring employees to pay more for health care.

But the single biggest source of help came from a $120,000 bequest from former board member Ruthanne Kelly. The largest individual gift in Peace history, Kelly’s donation spared the center from making drastic cuts to children’s activities. “It was a lifesaver,” says Billups.

An official at another local nonprofit says that Peace benefits from being “one of a very few African American community organizations–so people really hold onto that. If you look at their board, they have really rich liberals on their board.” Most of the center’s volunteers and board members are white, a sensitive issue. Billups, with unusual caution, says, “We think we could have more involvement of professionals who are African Americans.” Part of the explanation, he believes, lies in the loyalty many longtime black residents maintain for the Ann Arbor Community Center, the city’s oldest support center for African Americans. The Community Center is now rebuilding itself in the wake of an embezzlement scandal involving a former director.

Billups knows that many boys at Peace view him as a role model, and he takes the responsibility seriously. “Not that I’m so special,” he stresses, but because so many TV and media images are negative, typically portraying the black man as, in his words, a “thug.” Though he’s had minor experiences with prejudice himself, Billups stresses, “I have a faith in humanity.”

He embraced Baha’i when he was in his early twenties–initially to the dismay of his family, who attended Bethel AME. Baha’i draws from the tenets of several religions and emphasizes equality between men and women. Billups was attracted, he says, because “I grew up in Ann Arbor with kids who are Muslim, who are Christian, who are Jewish.”

His spiritual beliefs are one way he copes with the stress of his job. Questions and problems fly at Billups from the minute he arrives in the Peace parking lot until he leaves, often ten hours later. Sometimes, he takes short drives just to relax. His identity as a musician also helps; he has little time to perform, but he thoroughly enjoys a class he teaches at Washtenaw Community College on using computers in the recording studio.

It’s conceivable that he might retire early to return to music. But just as people couldn’t imagine Peace without Rose Martin, now many can’t conceive of it without Billups. “I have an incredible amount of respect for him,” says board president Dan Brady. Seeing the skill and commitment of Billups and other employees who commit to Peace, Brady admits, he sometimes asks himself, “They chose to dedicate themselves to this life?”

Sometimes, even the optimistic Billups asks himself that question. But that optimism won’t be quenched. Billups smiles when asked how Ryan, who enjoyed his first plane flight ever, is doing in Arizona. “He’s having a great time,” says Billups. And, yes, Ryan’s mom has stopped calling–and is even pondering plans to resume her own education.