BERKELEY -- It was 1995 and Kevin Williams, just out of law school, already had a faculty job at the University of Houston. The 24-year-old Oakland native was on the fast track and figured he would eventually end up in Washington, D.C., crafting public policy.
Then something dawned on him that brought him back to the East Bay, where for the past 16 years he has immersed himself in the gritty hands-on work of teaching young poor people, their families and those coming out of prison the practical skills to live in the economic mainstream.
"I realized that most of those folks in politics have zero balance in their lives," said Williams, associate director of Berkeley Youth Alternatives for the past 16 years. "The turning point for me was the desire to do something more community-driven. And I felt like I could make a big difference in a smaller community."
In June he was one of three Californians recognized with a $25,000 award by the California Wellness Foundation as a "Champion" of the health profession for his efforts at Berkeley Youth Alternatives and other organizations over the past 16 years.
Helping people on the lower rungs of the economy means starting with the most basic things many in the mainstream take for granted.
"You can have a person who is 24 years old who wants a job but who is at fifth-grade level, which is sad," Williams said. "Our staff will design a program based on who they are. There is no shame. We teach them how to balance a checkbook, how to fill out a job application online. You want an apartment? How do you get a copy of your credit score? We focus on where you are and where we're going to get you. It's sad, but we aim for a ninth-grade level."
Williams sometimes looks back on who he thought he might be before he came to Berkeley Youth Alternatives.
"My fantasy world was to work in D.C., maybe in a Senate committee on health and human services," Williams said of his early years before his mother, who is executive director of Berkeley Youth Alternatives, hired him. "I've had people tell me you could be doing bigger things, but I say to them, 'What could be bigger than helping the youth today and their families to live out the best lives they can for themselves?' I was never into money. I was never into status. I'm really driven by my faith and want to give back."
William's mother, Niculia Williams, hired him in 1997 to do the behind-the-scenes work at Berkeley Youth Alternatives, such as writing grants and raising money.
At the time, the organization's budget was about $400,000 and it had nine programs. Today, it has a budget of $2.3 million, has 47 employees and runs 27 programs including after-school, mental health counseling, job training and placement, stipends for food and utility bills, a garden program with a 1-acre farm, a teen center, parent education classes, summer camps, seniors programs, sports and fitness programs and teen pregnancy and nutrition classes.
In addition to helping run the programs, Williams is vice chairman of the LifeLong Medical Care board and is on the boards of the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network, the National Forum for Black Public Administrators and the Berkeley Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church.
In 2008, he quit a faculty position at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health to focus on the families his organization serves. Williams, 42, says he plans to stay at Berkeley Youth Alternatives until he is 60.
In the past two years, the organization's budget has nearly doubled from $1.4 million to $2.3 million, Williams said. And the organization is continuing to grow.
"Our partners are saying, 'What can you do to help our youth and our formerly incarcerated adults?'" Williams said. "Our funding is for workforce, but many of our participants need help with literacy, life skills, basic financial budgeting. So we are taking our youth model and seeing what works for adults."
He said the sprawling building Berkeley Youth Alternatives has occupied for so many years may not be big enough now. But no matter how much it grows, the mission will remain the same.
"I want to make sure each person who comes through our doors gets services and we have a conversation and make sure we have a really good plan in place and we can follow up with them," Williams said. "We can help them figure out who they are, give them a little bit of love. I can say, 'I might not have been in your shoes, but we have a lot of people around here who can help you.'"
Doug Oakley covers Berkeley and the Oakland school district. Contact him at 510-843-1408. Follow him at Twitter.com/douglasoakley.
Claim to fame: Associate director, Berkeley Youth Alternatives; vice chairman, LifeLong Medical Care board
Quote: "What could be bigger than helping the youth today and their families to live out the best lives they can for themselves?"
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