While playing basketball at the Washington Park court on the corner of 60th and Martin Luther King Dr., Middle School Youth Director Donnell Williams jokes with the 8th-graders. Rakirah, 14, says, “I just love that Donnell is so relatable to us. There’s nothing I can’t tell him about my family or what I’m struggling with. He always gives good advice and stays calm because he has been through it.”
“It’s been clear all along that God has had a hand on me. I didn’t know at the time that I would end up working with youth, but my aunt predicted it long ago.” For Donnell, growing up on the south side of Chicago was both enriching and challenging. He developed a deep love and deep burden for the city. As one of 5 children, he grew up following in his older brother’s footsteps. His older brother was involved in the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program and had a mentor, Brad Stone. Donnell was “adopted” by Brad’s family and spent almost every summer at their home on the East Coast. He first started developing a relationship with Jesus during these summers.
At the age of 12, Donnell’s older brother was murdered. As one of the worst traumas anyone can experience, it is something that deeply affects him and drives him to work with youth in Chicago. But his path to working with youth would take some twists and turns. By the time he was a young adult, Donnell was in community college and working. “I knew better at the time, but something drew me to start stealing things. I knew it wasn’t right and planned to stop. In fact, the night before I was caught, I had a dream and I knew God was telling me to stop. The next day I was arrested.” And yet God’s faithfulness in his life continued. From getting placed in a cell-block with a group of Christian men, to having mentorship from older men, he would spend the next 5 years developing a stronger relationship and commitment to Christ. All the while, he maintained a relationship with his girlfriend, Etoya, with whom he shared a daughter. Upon release, he married her and they now have another daughter together.
During his time in prison, Donnell was able to maintain a relationship with the Stone family. When he was released, they were able to connect him with Sunshine and he began working as a custodian. However, Sunshine soon saw the amazing heart Donnell had for the youth in Woodlawn. He started volunteering his time coaching basketball and mentoring in the youth programming. “My passion for connecting with the youth grew over the years. I didn’t necessarily think when I was younger that I would be doing this, but I can see how all of the things I’ve experienced in my life has lead me to this and how God’s using me.” Sunshine staff has often noted that Donnell is the first to go above and beyond for the kids. He is there in times of crisis as an empathetic ear and is constantly wanting to learn and grow in his position so he can better meet the needs of the youth. Donnell is a tangible example for the Woodlawn youth of a man that has overcome with extreme resilience the tragedies in his life and is serving Christ whole-heartedly.