Wendell Williams

 As you may know by now, I am on a quest to inventory the kind things people, often strangers, have done in my life to get me through a crisis. This is one of those stories, only with many people performing multiple acts over the years. 

 I recently visited Scotland, where I was a finalist for best contribution/story of the year by a vendor in the International Network of Street Papers Awards. To quote the lyrics of “Once in a Lifetime” by the Talking Heads, “How did I get here?”

Wendell Williams visited a kilt store at the back of a souvenir shop. Photo by Katharina / Asphault

It all started on a cold evening in Cincinnati, Ohio. My life was in shambles and I was sleeping on the floor of a drop-in center in one of the worst parts of the city. In walked Donald Whitehead, the executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition. He went from mat to mat asking who would help by being an audience member for a cable access show. His request fell on deaf ears until he mentioned there would be a stop at McDonald’s for all.  

After eating daily at soup kitchens and churches, McDonald’s sounded good. But I still had reservations. “What can we order?” I asked.   

“Anything on the menu,” he replied. So, for a Double Quarter Pounder with cheese combo, my involvement with street newspapers began.  

I intended to just sleep through the show. But there were only about a dozen people crammed into the small studio, which meant I had multiple chances to comment as the host walked around Donahue-style. After a long radio career, I had no fear of a microphone. I was asked to be guest on the next Streetvibes TV show and Donald gave me his pitch on the potential of street papers to uplift lives. I was offered the chance to man the Coalition’s flagship city-approved location to sell Streetvibes downtown. After that very first shift, I knew I had found what I had been looking for.  

But when both of my parents passed in 2001 within 30 days of one another and I found myself back in D.C. years later, the mismanaged events of my life again landed me homeless.   

[Read moreThe agony and the ecstasy of Wendell Williams 

Some Ohio friends mentioned Donald was also in D.C. He had been given the special honor of becoming the first formerly homeless person to head a national homeless organization. I was floored. My old caseworker then helped us reconnect. 

He talked about working on a new D.C. area street paper and gave me a contact person: Street Sense Media co-founder Ted Henson. Frustrated and unfulfilled with a series of crap jobs, I signed up in the early days of vendor recruitment in 2003. And, like riding a bike, the skills I learned distributing the Cincinnati paper returned.  

I was unable to completely escape the back-and-forth cycle of homelessness for years. So, during a 2017 visit to the office, the unthinkable happened: The latest editor suggested I write something for the paper. I refused.  

For most of my life, I’ve gone to great lengths to hide my learning disabilities. Even in radio, I would cut and paste others’ work and made sure I hired a personal intern to do my editing and writing. I’ve never told anyone until now, let alone openly discussed it. 

In Catholic grade school, I mastered the art of multiple choice and memorizing spelling test words, but I could not recall how to spell them days later. In parochial high school, my deficiencies were exposed. I refused to do essay portions of exams, I was embarrassed by my illegible handwriting, and I couldn’t spell words correctly or put complete thoughts on paper. It was as if I would lose something between my brain and the hand holding my pen.  

But C and D grades kept me eligible for the sports I loved to play. However, I started to be reprimanded for behavioral issues that were attempts to hide my shortcomings. If I was called to write on the board where the whole class could see, I would act out. I was labeled a class clown, uncooperative or just stupid.   

If I could have taken exams orally, I would have done extremely well. One instructor even said he would no longer accept D and C work from me because he knew, based on our conversations, that I knew the material.  

So I was surprised when my editor asked me to write. I dodged and avoided him, using every red herring I could think of. But he countered by telling me about the technology available today and offering to advise and edit.

OK, but what would I write about?  

Looking at some of the personal writing used in my own recovery, I stumbled upon the idea to list the kind things people have done for me over the last 20-some years.   

Thus “Random Acts of Kindness” was born. 

The longer I stay sober, the more I remember the little things people have done for me. I see kindness or the potential for kindness in everyone. It has allowed me to forgive and feel better about myself, which makes forgiving others easier. But I never believed any of the things I wrote would be worthy of special consideration, let alone held in high esteem.   

In January, I wrote a story about a trip to Jamaica, turned it in, and went on with life. My editor entered it into the international competition behind my back. I didn’t know about it until the 10 semi-finalists were announced in June. His secret act of kindness set the stage for what I call my “Magical Mystery Tour” to the other side of the world.  

I never really thought of traveling that far. In some ways, maybe I was thinking the world really was flat and if I went that far east, I would fall off.  What I am saying is all this was so far out of my comfort zone. I feared I might wake up and find out a cruel joke was being played on me. But when I mentioned the nomination to several supporters, one said, “Wendell, you should go to Scotland.”  

“Yeah, right!” I responded.  

Another advised me not to reject the idea outright. “Just see what it costs,”  he said. I thought I had a better chance of being elected president, but looking at 45 (or President Trump as others might know him) made me think it was possible. Until I checked on the cost.   

Then another supporter suggested GoFundMe. “Who in the hell is going to donate enough money to get me to Scotland?” I thought. 

 It turns out around 60 wonderful people thought enough of me. It is mind-blowing to think that so many friends and supporters could come together to make this happen. It was really a spiritual undertaking.  

Wendell Williams in front of Street Sense poster

A poster of an old Street Sense Media cover hangs in the office with other street paper covers. They were part of an exhibition at Scotland’s Centre for Design and Architecture last year. Photo by Wendell Williams

When the campaign stalled at the halfway point and prices for airfare continued to rise, I  worried I had bitten off more than I could chew. Then, a special friend booked all the flights, freezing the price while I continued to raise donations. That really made the difference between going and not. It took most of the anxiety away. For the first time, I confidently believed I was going to Scotland.  

As my departure drew closer, I began to think there was something around every corner that would prevent me from actually getting on that plane. My mind and body didn’t relax until the 757 was airborne and I was on my way.  

I was not traveling alone; I took all those wonderful well-meaning people with me in my heart.

I had no idea there would be entertainment available in-flight. With the credits still rolling on a second movie, the plane touched down in Iceland. It took me a minute to process that people were running around the tarmac wearing down coats. Man, was it was cold, damp and rainy. 

I almost missed the connecting flight out because I was so tired I went to the wrong gate, 27A instead of just 27. However, I was saved by a panicked email to a Street Sense Media staffer who was to join me for the final leg. After an hour, she and I touched down in Glasgow. I had been in the air so long. I almost bent down and kissed terra firma.   

As other cabs came and went, we held out until one of those old-style black taxis from the movies appeared. Twenty minutes later, we pulled up to the conference site the Crowne Plaza right on River Clyde and directly across from the headquarters of BBC Scotland.  

After a quick check-in, I was off to a prearranged tour of the city that concluded with a reception and greeting by the mayor of Glasgow at the centuries-old city hall. Everything about the building, from the stairs to the to the dome, was a work of art.  

Seeing the many homeless people along the streets with that same look of despair in their eyes gave me a deeper understanding of how the fight against homelessness is truly a global issue. 

After some serious sleep, I was up early for breakfast the next morning where I met more of the representatives from around the world. There were 100-plus delegates and I was one of only two vendors there. I was also the only person of color, other than the five people from a few Asian street papers. This time being different turned out to be an asset. At 6-foot-3-inches and over 300 pounds, I couldn’t be missed and it gave me the chance to tell many people about our paper, my story, my plans for a Random Acts of Kindness book and how being nominated for this award meant so much to me and how I hope it is motivational for other vendors.  

Allan, a vendor for Hus Forbi in Denmark, was the only other vendor attending the conference. Photo by Wendell Williams

Every morning I would rise at 5.30 to eat and go see parts of the city. One morning I even took

an hour train ride to visit Edinburgh Castle and the surrounding area. The views of the countryside from the train and castle ramparts were breathtaking. I even went out alone at nights to sample the local hangouts and attend 12-step meetings. I didn’t want to be strictly a tourist.  

 

My only complaint was I couldn’t understand a word the locals were saying, even when they attempted to slow their speaking just for me. I adopted the strategy of clapping when everyone else clapped and laughing when everyone else laughed. I wound up really enjoying myself and the people even if I was often clueless. Do you think they could tell I wasn’t from Scotland? 

After days of workshops and discussion, the awards night arrived. I tried to act nonchalant as if winning would mean nothing to me.  

But that was far from the truth.  

I have never won anything in my life as an individual and it meant a lot to hear what the judges said about my piece, “Random Acts of Kindness: Reggae Style.” I wanted to win not just for me, but also for all the people who believed in me and for my fellow vendors back home in D.C.   

When my name was not called, I went into a brief emotional spin. I felt like I had let everyone down. “Who was I to believe I was a winner?” my inner critic asked. I messaged some of my supporters apologizing. But all their responses were in agreement: I had already won just by being a top-five finalist, getting there and all the work I am doing otherwise. Those texts lifted my spirits in an indescribable way. I hopped in a taxi to hit a meeting and a comedy club to celebrate my “win.” 

Because of many random acts of kindness over the years coupled with donations from over 60 known and unknown supporters this summer I was able to ride the perfect storm created by your love and concern all the way from McDonald’s to Scotland.