Groundviews is Solid Ground’s quarterly print newsletter for our friends and supporters. Below is our March 2013 lead story.
A collegiate academic and athletic star, Johnnie Williams is a nationally-recognized track coach and mentor to thousands of at risk young people. But years ago, while he himself was at Eckstein Middle School, his mom was getting untangled from drugs and a violent relationship. Williams was close to failing out and getting sucked into the vortex of generational poverty. But when he moved with his mom and siblings to Broadview Emergency Shelter & Transitional Housing for women and their children – escaping her husband and the drugs – the family began to rebuild their lives.
A safe space for a new start
Williams says one of the most important aspects about Broadview was that “it was a women-only shelter, and there was no way my young brother’s dad could have any more impact on my family. For me, that was the turning point: the safety and security.
“It was a complete 180 for us. Our grades turned around. There weren’t as many distractions in the home. My mother wasn’t on drugs anymore. We had people down at the [Broadview] front office we could talk to. And all the staff knew; they seemed to care. I felt like I wasn’t the only kid who grew up in this type of situation. I had people that I could relate to, so I didn’t feel singled out.”
Declining a prep-school academic scholarship, Williams went to Nathan Hale High School. “It was where a lot of my friends were. And a couple of Hale students were living at Broadview at the time, so I wanted to keep the connection with them.” As a young boy, Williams had taken up recreational running. By high school, he was a local track star destined for a big-time collegiate career, maybe more.
Williams started college at Washington State University (WSU), far enough from his family to focus on his studies, but close enough to help if needed. Academics at WSU and then Eastern Washington University did not prove enough of a challenge, so he ultimately transferred to Columbia University, where he earned a degree in Forensic Anthropology in 2003.
After graduating, he ran professionally for two years, but then another enormous life challenge knocked him off track when he was diagnosed with leukemia. Yet he even took this in stride: “I think that all of the struggles we went through made me a stronger person in general. Dealing with what I had to deal with, I feel like, if I can overcome something like that, there is nothing in my life that I can’t overcome. Whatever I do, I don’t want to fail.” So Williams regained his health and turned his energy and skills to coaching.
From mentee to mentor
While coaching at Garfield High School, the City of Seattle recruited him to work with their youth programs. He says, “I would only take it if I was working with youth who grew up in the same situation that I did. They placed me at Yesler Terrace Community Center. Ever since then, I’ve been working at all the low-income sites in Seattle Parks and Recreation.”
Thirteen years later, young athletes come from across the country to work with Williams’ High Voltage Amateur Athletic Union Track Club. “As a coach and as a person, I’ve become very protective of my kids. I am understanding of a lot of situations; I know what goes on in certain households.
“I’ve become a mentor to a lot of my kids and I have the same perspective as the Broadview Shelter staff: If there are issues – and there are – well you can come and talk about it and we can provide a safe environment for you. If you are looking for a turning point in your life, this is a place where you can begin.
“We work with a lot of kids that are homeless. We work with a lot of kids that are HIV positive, [or] that grew up in the same situation that I did, with their parents on drugs, with domestic violence,” he says. “If you save one kid, you have done your job. And I can name 14 kids right now that, under my coaching, are on Division One college scholarships. Two of them are running professional track and field; some of them are in Division One universities now. I have national champions in the high jump and long jump.”
What makes the greatest difference in their lives? Williams speaks from firsthand experience when he replies, “Just having somebody to talk to, someone that they know, that cares that they can make the best out of that situation. I think the kids appreciate that more than anything.”