Wolf Blitzer and Wendell Williams shaking hands before the award acceptance.
CNN's Wolf Blitzer (left) congratulates Wendell Williams as he picks up his award. // Photo courtesy of Wendell Williams

This is the first Random Acts of Kindness column I have written since “A Valentine for Valerie,” remembering my love and my best friend, who died Dec. 30, 2018. I dedicate this accomplishment, and my return to writing, to her. She was born the same day this article will be published, Oct. 2.

In late May, I was just about ready to leave for Haiti and the Dominican Republic when my Street Sense Media editor informed me that I was part of a group of our writers nominated for a Dateline award from the Washington Society of Professional Journalists. I was nominated for a commentary piece, “Guns and Our Lives: A Letter to the Open Minded,” I had written concerning guns after the Children’s March for Our Lives.

I blew it off as a waste of time. I completely misunderstood its significance until I realized this was a chance to measure my work against working journalists. But after coming home empty handed from the INSP awards in Scotland last year, I was sick with the feeling I had wasted the resources of my Street Sense support family. I remember calling my long time friend and supporter Bobbie O. to apologize for not winning. Her response was, “You’ve got to Scotland. You’ve already won in our eyes.”

I tried my best to talk my way out of going to the D.C. SPJ event, and each reason I came up with was shot down after sharing the nomination with supporters. I ran out of excuses not to go. All that was left was my fear of someone recognizing me from when I worked in the building as a broadcaster years ago. I dreaded being asked “Wendell, what happened to you?”

The biggest challenge now was I was well over 300 lbs and it would be next to impossible to find a suit in the thrift stores to fit. In a Random Act of Kindness, five supporters pitched in and got me something I never thought I ever could afford, a custom-tailored suit. Surely now I would be able to blend in without feeling like I was wearing a “Scarlet Letter” around my neck.

On the day I attended the ceremony as I got closer to my destination, I had flashbacks of trying to distribute Street Sense Media papers outside these doors.

After getting off at Metro Center and walking what felt like a walk of shame down F Street NW — which used to be my daily walk to work — I started to hyperventilate with feelings of inadequacy and fear of embarrassment. I said to myself, “Why go through with this anyway? The food will probably be lousy.” So, a block away, I ducked into the McDonalds and purchased a fish combo. After finishing up my “banquet meal,” I still had time to kill before the cocktail reception. Remembering my days as a vagrant, I hung out at the McDonalds with a cup in front of me.

Wendell Williams in a McDonald's bathroom checking his appearance.

Williams checks his appearance before the banquet in a McDonald’s bathroom. Photo courtesy of Wendell Williams

As I reached the front of the building, I stood around outside, took selfies, and then realized I looked just like everyone else walking past me and through the door. At that moment, I realized that the Scarlet Letter was not around my neck but in my mind. I remembered that I had been out of the media business for more than 20 years and the chances of someone remembering me were slim. So I took a few selfies and walked in. And much to my relief, I was treated like I belonged there by everyone I encountered, from the door person to the security personnel discreetly and strategically placed around inside wearing dark gray suits. I had forgotten the splendor of the elevator lobby of the Club itself. I caught myself acting like a d*** tourist, taking pictures of everything, from the ceilings to the elevator doors. Then I remembered what my football coaches used to tell us after we scored a touchdown, “Act like you’ve been there before.” I put away my phone, stepped on, and rode up. When the car door opened on the thirteenth floor, the cocktail reception was in full swing and had the feel of a TV awards show.

Wendell Williams standing in front of the National Press Building holding a Street Sense paper.

Wendell Williams prepares to enter the National Press Building on the night of the D.C. Society of Professional Journalists 2019 awards banquet.  Photo courtesy of Wendell Williams

People started to approach me and introduce themselves. At first, I didn’t feel comfortable. And then I remembered that I looked just like everybody else. It was that suit, and no Street Sense Media badge. No one knew I wasn’t a player and that I couldn’t greenlight their next project. Everyone was moving around the room talking and networking and soon enough I was moving from group to group. Two gentlemen even told me there might even be some interest in my book ideas.

We took our seats. I could reach out and touch well-known media veterans from organizations like the Washington Post, CNN, City Paper and the Washington Times. And there I was from Street Sense Media.

The servers appeared and the meal began. I cleaned my plate before noticing many people hardly touched their meal. I wanted to ask the wait staff if I could take the leftovers to a shelter.

Street Sense was nominated as a complete opinion page with each of our individual articles recognized separately for their merit. We’d win or lose as a team. And then it happened. The MC read the categories, nominees, and then the room seemed to go silent: “The winner is Street Sense Media,” he said, followed by our names and the titles of our opinion pieces.

Aida Peery, Wendell Williams, and Jeff Gray seated at a banquet table while smiling.

Street Sense Media vendors Aida Peery (left) and Wendell Williams (center) were two of the three contributors whose work led to Street Sense Media winning Best Commentary and Criticism for a Weekly Newspaper at this years D.C. Society of Professional Journalists’ Dateline Awards. Former Communications Director Jeff Gray (right) was a finalist for Best Feature for a Weekly Newspaper.  Photo courtesy of Wendell Williams

I jumped to my feet and let out a cheer and thrusted my fist in the air as if my favorite team, the Patriots, had just scored the Super Bowl winning touchdown. I looked around at the faces and laughed to myself and acted cool but I was sky high just from finally hearing my name as a winner. I got my award from CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, who was inducted into the group’s hall of fame that night. I shook some hands and posed for photos as the evening ended.

As the well-heeled crowd headed out into the night, some waiting for valeted cars and others for their Ubers and taxis, I couldn’t help but feel alone. My mind went to how proud my beloved and sorely missed Valerie would be of me and the paper she loved and supported so much. We had beaten the big boys. I looked up into the night sky thought of her and started walking toward Metro Center with no one to share this with.

For me, my editor, staff, and fellow formerly homeless writers, the night was a moment to remind others that homelessness is the state of one’s housing situation and in no way indicates what one can or can’t achieve.

Photo of Wendell Williams grinning and holding his award certificate.

Photo courtesy of Wendell Williams.