In 2005, when gang violence ravaged the city, the public housing development in the
North Ward was the site of much illicit activity. However, Williams found his way there every afternoon after he left his job at the state Department of Labor to visit his sister and nephew, who lived in Donnelly Homes. The 55-year-old Williams, who grew up in Trenton, said he saw everything going on, from people dealing drugs and weapons to shootings and children as young as 10 walking around with guns.
“I saw the violence that was going on,” he said.
But Williams wanted to help and soon he was teaching the teens how to box, something he learned to do when he was growing up in the city.
“They had a gym that they weren’t using because everyone was scared to come out of their houses,” he said.
He asked the guys in the neighborhood to spread the word that he only wanted gang members to come for the first night. He wanted to bring the community together with healthy activity, and he decided that meant gang members, too.
“I thought there would be, like, 10 or 12,” Williams said. “It was, like, 150.”
Since then he has hosted a program in the gym every Friday night from 5 to 8 p.m. open to all of the kids who live in the public housing development. Since 2005, the program has expanded, with help from local churches, to include a literacy program and program for girls.
But it is more than just giving the children and teens something to do on a Friday evening. Williams said by spending time with them he gets to know what kind of help they need to make sure that they either stay in school and do well on their report cards, or he will work with them to get them a job.
“I saw that a lot of these boys couldn’t read or got thrown out of school or quit,” Williams said. “If you can’t read, you feel that ‘This is my life,’ so you hang on the corner. If you can read, you might see things differently.”
Williams has a computer-based literacy program and teachers affiliated with Mosaic Baptist Church that runs on Fridays for some of the teens who want to improve their literacy skills.
For 10-year-old Diamond Laguerre, she said she is just happy to have something to do and somewhere to play for a few hours.
“You have a lot of bad influences and a lot of boys,” said Hale, whose older daughter helps to lead the girls group.
Williams said if he can get the necessary approval and funding, he hopes to expand Urban Warfare into a vocational program, where the men can learn a construction-related trade. He said his vision is to have them learn how to do the work as interns for plumbers, contractors, electricians in the area and then use their skills to renovate many of the abandoned or burned-out buildings just outside the black fence of Donnelly Homes.
Contact Jenna Pizzi at firstname.lastname@example.org or (609) 989-5717.
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