Middle School Director Donnell Williams Shares the Rippling Effect of His Brother's Death

I was the second born of 5 kids.  My older brother Rickey, at the age of 16, had taken on the responsibility of helping to provide financially for our family.  Rickey was a smart, outgoing, hard-working, and likeable kid. He was responsible and mature beyond his years. We were living in the Hilliard Home projects at the time.  As was common for many young men in our community, selling drugs was a quick option to get money. Rickey never used drugs, but he did sell them to help make ends meet, providing food for us, paying for utilities, buying us clothes, etc.  My mom came home to tell us Rickey had been shot and was in the hospital but the doctors said he was going to be fine. Soon after she entered the door, she received a call from the hospital that he died. We were all in shock. I couldn’t believe just like that he was gone.  His death would leave a rippling effect on our family for years to come.  

My mom had struggled with drug addiction on and off for many years.  Rickey’s death sent her into a deep depression and downward spiral. She left for days at a time, leaving me to raise my younger siblings.  At the age of 12, I was now responsible for the daily chores of the family cooking, cleaning, as well laundry. I remember asking some of my classmates if they could help do my younger sister’s hair.  I made sure we all went to school every day. For a nice amount of time, I was primarily responsible for them until I went to live with my dad in a different part of the city. 

My life would take some twists and turns before landing me at Sunshine.  As a young man (21), I had a baby daughter and was working hard to provide for us, but made some bad choices and I ended up going to prison for a few years. I had become a Christian previously, but God used that time to really wake me up.  I became more serious about my faith and what God wanted for my life. As a child (6) I was involved with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program and I stayed in touch with my mentor’s family throughout my life. When I was released, they put me in touch with Sunshine to see if there were some opportunities for work and whatnot.  I started out working at our front desk, greeting people and doing custodial maintenance work. But my passion for working with youth was evident and now I run our middle school programs as well as coach basketball for our young men. I also married my daughter’s mother and we have another daughter now too.   

Now as an adult, I had been learning to cope with my own trauma through humor or refocusing my energy on pouring into the kids I work with.  But when we started to learn more about trauma and the long-term effects it can have on people, I really started to see my own need to face my pain and work through it.  And almost all the kids we work with at Sunshine (yes 300 a year!) have been affected in some way by gun violence- whether it’s a relative, a friend, or a neighbor they know.  God continues to give me grace. Each time we lose one of our students, however, I am brought right back to my own trauma. Our training in trauma has helped, but can only scratch the surface. Pray with us as we continue to address the trauma of our students and staff.