By Kate Daniel ’14
From the back row of English class at Mendel Catholic High School in Chicago, Tommy Williams Jr. peered to the front of the room and was startled by something peculiar. David, a scrawny, nonathletic, “nerdy” kid, was scratching at his head and a clump of hair fell to the desk.
Williams had grown up being teased for being overweight, but later shot up to 6 foot 4 inches. He excelled at sports – he had already earned a spot on the junior varsity football team, and was at once accepted by popular upperclassmen.
However, Williams quickly learned that the perks of the in-crowd were not without consequences. Peer pressure became a major force in Williams’ life and he regretfully experienced his own metamorphosis from victim to bully in order to maintain his social standing.
“We started bullying David. I didn’t physically assault him, but I would join in with the teasing and harassment,” Williams said. “On the inside, there was a part of me saying ‘Tommy, how dare you? You remember being bullied like that, and now you’re sitting here doing the same thing.’ But then I was scared to step up and say, ‘hey cut it out; that’s not cool.’”
Williams said that in hindsight he imagines that David’s hair loss was a result of bullying; this was the first time he realized the physical impact of his behavior. Not long afterward, Williams was expelled after his name was mentioned repeatedly in connection with bullying on campus.
Today, Williams tells this story to kids in the Spokane community as a part of the Reactor Nation assembly, one of many programs run by Operation Healthy Family, a local organization of which Williams is the volunteer CEO and founder. During the day, Williams works as a case worker for DSHS. “I tell them, ‘I’m an old man now and I still wish I could go back and apologize to David,’ ” he said.
“I’m really dedicating my life today to help students not make those dumb decisions and to be comfortable with themselves,” he said. “Peer pressure is always going to be there but it’s easy to do the right thing and it’s harder to just continue to go down that path. We can’t live in the past, but what we can do is make it a game plan to learn off of our past.”
Williams’ mission to combat bullying is implemented by programs incorporating sports such as football and disc golf, music from groups such as rappers Level Ground, (Williams’ childhood friends) and community outreach – a passion that was instilled by the sense of community he experienced growing up.
After graduating high school, Williams was recruited heavily to play college football, and eventually chose to attend Eastern after the EWU recruiter impressed Williams by stopping by his Chicago home.
Williams said he has always been thankful for his decision, and said that he attributes much of his success to mentors like his father, Tommy Williams Sr., Coach Dick Zornes, Mike Campitelli, and professors James Moynahan and Robert Morgenstern. Williams graduated in 1995 with a BA in sociology and criminal justice.
“It shaped the man I am today. Living in a small town like Cheney, having coaches who cared, professors who were there nonstop for me, my teammates with whom I still keep in contact today – having that Eagle pride; I’ll have it forever. It’s just something that was very special. I was on the first team to win the Big Sky Conference Championship in ’92 – that’s just something I can’t stress enough, how it really made me feel as though I’m a part of something great.”
After graduation, Williams tried an array of professions and continued to search for his identity, something he said he found upon meeting his wife, Paula. The couple began attending Bethel AME Church, located next door to what are now the Operation Healthy Family offices, and discussing ways to give back. Initially, Williams decided to begin an after-school football program, but said he received instructions from God to do something much bigger.
Operation Healthy Family implements sports and music programs to impart self-confidence and a safe mode of self-expression for kids, which Williams said is integral to strong personal development. Operation Healthy Family is present in 15 schools as a part of its Reactor Nation anti-bullying program, 18 schools for its disc golf program, two schools for its oral health program and one school for its entrepreneurial program.
Williams and his wife both work for the non-profit, which is staffed entirely by volunteers. The organization also operates in the Congo, where staff, headed by a minister named Napoleon, provides education, including oral health and entrepreneurial programs and boarding for children who have lost one or both parents to war.
Williams stressed his belief in the importance of giving children a hand up, rather than a hand out. He explained that as a part of the disc-golf program, children receive personal packets of golfing supplies in return for an allotted number of family community service hours spent at Second Harvest Food Bank. In the Congo, children are not only fed, but are given a tackle box and taught to fish.
“I think we have the most holistic, well-rounded program that not just talks to the students and trains the students, but we also have programs for staff, teachers and also the parents.”
Williams said his ultimate goal is to expand Operation Healthy Family to all Spokane Public Schools and to have multiple family disc-golf courses.