She wished for warm clothes, cozy bedding and — above all — to never again be homeless.
A year after her story of perseverance was featured in the Mail Tribune, Justice Williams has a home in the residence halls of Oregon State University, hope for the future and her community’s support. Numerous handwritten, heartfelt letters and cards reassure the 18-year-old when she feels alone. Funds donated by one newspaper reader in response to Light One Candle give Williams a sense of security.
“I am grateful that so many kind souls would help a complete stranger in her time of need,” said Williams. “Spending a good chunk of my life being homeless made it easy to fall into negativity and feel like the world is against you and that no one cares.”
Medical care is Williams’ career goal, one she is pursuing with a major in biohealth sciences through OSU’s honors college. Shadowing nursing students at Southern Oregon University inspired Williams when she was in middle school to obtain a medical degree and specialty in neonatology. But her family’s chronic homelessness almost blocked Williams’ path to success.
“My family was going through a transition in which my mom wanted to move,” said Williams. “However, I didn’t want to move because I already knew exactly how to graduate with an honors diploma and was on track to do so.”
A student at Phoenix High School, Williams had been working closely with Maslow Project, a Medford-based nonprofit organization that works to alleviate homelessness among children and teens, promoting their self-sufficiency. Williams’ Maslow caseworkers told her about Community Works’ Transitional Living Program, which moved her into a Medford apartment. But a stable, safe dwelling didn’t bring an end to the girl’s hardships.
Williams’ route to school every morning entailed riding three buses. Yet she also walked so much that her shoes were worn. Once she finished classes, she worked part time, shopped for food and basic necessities and prepared her own meals.
The rigors of Williams’ day-to-day routine prompted Community Works to request gift cards for clothing, kitchen items and cleaning and household supplies on her behalf, along with a few indulgences, such as makeup, movies, coffee drinks or restaurant meals. The story was featured with 12 others in December last year for the Mail Tribune’s annual Light One Candle project, a charitable-giving campaign that highlights the specific needs of local individuals and families served by social service organizations.
More than 60 newspaper readers touched by Williams’ circumstances furnished enough warm pajamas, bedding and gift cards for her and a dozen other teen clients of Community Works. Each contribution came with a letter, note or card bearing messages of hope and encouragement.
“It makes me really remember why it is important to care about everyone in the community and keeps me focused on working toward being a neonatologist,” said Williams.
Pledging $150 per month for the past year, one local donor wanted to help pay for Williams’ education. The funds are held with her other college savings in an individual development account, which matches deposits and has specific requirements for withdrawals.
“I feel really good that someone thinks I was a ‘worth-it’ cause,” said Williams. “I feel like he is really invested in helping me succeed and that I can be as successful as I hope to be.”
Buoyed by some scholarships, Williams said she wants to preserve her college savings for another few years, perhaps tapping it for graduate school or study-abroad programs. Attending college wasn’t possible for Williams without taking out some student loans.
“With being a full-time student in college, it is a struggle to maintain her basic needs while going to school,” said Barbara Johnson, executive director of Community Works. “As she plans her longevity in college, she is struggling to have enough funds to pay for her entire time.”
But Williams is no stranger to struggle. While pursuing her own demanding workload, she said she still feels like the primary caretaker of her immediate family, namely her 16-year-old brother, who still lives with her mother. Despite the distance between OSU and her hometown, Williams still steps in to help whenever they need her.
A little help with personal-care and comfort items would lighten Williams’ load. She wishes for a nice electric toothbrush, a twin-size mattress topper for her college bunk bed, scrubs (small or x-small) that she wears while working as a certified nursing assistant, as well as everyday clothing. She cherishes pictures and handwritten notes for her “inspiration wall.”
“My biggest advice to anyone struggling is to make sure you reach out,” said Williams. “Reach out to organizations that can help you be successful and find other students or people around you going through similar stuff.
“Don’t let your circumstances kill your spirit or your dreams. Your own determination, motivation and drive are what get you to your goals. It makes no difference if you grew up a billionaire’s kid or in the gutter. It’s what you choose to do with what you are given to prove that you can take a bad circumstance and turn it into a fighting chance.”
To help, call Community Works at 541-779-2393, ext. 200 or ext. 213.