Melissa Williams, 43, knows firsthand how mean the streets of Englewood can be.
Already a single mother of three, Williams adopts the South Side neighborhood kids as well.
“After years of being away, when I came back to Englewood I was upset. It hurt me to see little girls and boys walking around struggling with the same fear I had in my eyes at that age,” Williams said.
She said the children in Englewood needed guidance and understanding.
“I was that girl, but now I have matured into the woman I am today. Some might say, I’ve bitten off more than I can chew, but I say when your faith is as big as your heart, you can do all things,” Williams said.
Growing up, all Williams knew was the streets. She said she hadn’t even graduated out of eighth grade before she was expelled and sent to Joliet Youth Center. There she was able to continue school and make a choice on what to do with the rest of her life.
“It was then I promised to be something better and instead of hurting people, I wanted to help them,” said Williams.
In high school, she started to get involved with extracurricular activities such as cheerleading. She said she was so determined to help the kids that she would come home and take a group of girls to the park for practice. They would go over the same cheers she was learning in school just to keep them occupied and off the streets. That was around the time she started her first job at Goodlow Elementary Magnet School as a teacher’s aide.
At age 20, Williams had her first child Ardella Ezell, 24. Later came Eddie Williams Jr., 20, and Elissa Williams, 17. While sending her kids to school, she saw the struggle some parents were having when it came to getting the uniforms for school. She took it upon herself to do a clothing drive where the neighborhood pitched in to give uniforms to those in need.
“I was mom to some, but most everyone knew me as Melissa, the woman always helping the kids,” she said.
In 2002 to 2006, she became known as the “basketball mom” at Luke O’Toole Elementary School after she supported her son with his love for the game. She said she went to every game, volunteered her efforts, and acted as a support system for not only Eddie, but the rest of the team.
“Ever since I could remember, my mom has been there to cheer me on at my games,” said her son Eddie Jr.“She pushed me to not get caught up in the streets of Englewood and really focus on my talent.”
During the summer months, Williams wanted to keep the kids busy so she started a program called the “I Want to Grow up Summer League.” The league consisted of basketball tournaments at Luke O’Toole Elementary School’s playground and a dance team called the “#1 Diamonds”.
She bought basketball rims and uniforms for all of the teams. The program ran for three years with an end of the year banquet following each term. At the banquet she would award the winning team with trophies as well as give out participation awards to show that everyone was a winner.
“I didn’t do it to get paid so I didn’t look for any compensation,” said Williams. “I simply wanted to help the kids do what they loved and if it meant utilizing my time and money, I was prepared to do it.”
After Eddie graduated out of eighth grade, she followed him over to Harper High School where she also was actively involved. Still known as the “basketball mom,” she adopted more boys into her care.
“Melissa couldn’t have come into my life at a better time,” said Jermaine Green, one of the players from the high school basketball team. “I had just lost my mom, and I was on the brink of giving up, but she was there to push me to keep going. She was like my second mom.”
Williams said she saw the passion in each of the boys’ eyes and she wanted to see them prosper. As she witnessed the team’s lack of funds to travel and compete in the tournaments, she began to fundraise for them. She sold candy and T-shirts and raised about $4,500. They were able to go to Michigan, Missouri, Indiana, and a nearby suburb in Illinois.
“Some of the boys had never even been out of Chicago, so the look on their faces was all the reward I needed,” said Williams. “I don’t want them to just dream of making it out, I want to show them that it’s possible.
Still actively volunteering at Harper High School, she is now president of their Parent Program. She focuses on getting the parents involved in their child’s education. She mentors boys and girls with self-esteem issues as well as troubled teens who have suffered from abuse.
She said she makes sure they understand that they are somebody. Going door-to-door, Williams gets the neighborhood involved prompting them to help bring Englewood back up.
“My mom is definitely not your average mother,” said Elissa, her youngest daughter.
She said that’s probably the reason all of the kids that knew her, loved her because she helped just about every child in the neighborhood in some type of way.
“My mom lives through the act of helping others,” she said as she wiped tears from her eyes. “I’m really proud to say she’s my mommy.”
Williams said her reason for living revolves around the kids. She only wanted to see them succeed and reach their highest potential. Her biggest fear was to see them become a victim of the “senseless killing” that they were surrounded with everyday.
She said legally they may not all be hers, but she loves them all just the same.
“I will never forget where I’ve been because it inspires every place I am going,” said Williams.