When 12-year-old Joshua Williams hands you a business card, you take it. When Williams tells you he'll graduate with a double major from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology someday, you tend to believe him.
And when he spoke to a packed auditorium at Independence Charter Middle School on Thursday, the crowd listened.
It's all because the seventh-grader from Miami, Fla., with the bouncy Afro haircut and infectious smile, has found something many spend an entire lifetime searching for: a purpose in life. Williams shares his universal message with anyone willing to listen.
“World hunger is something that can be fixed,” Williams said. “We all have to unite as one and work together to actually solve this problem. If we each just donated one dollar, that's enough to help a lot of people and change their lives; to make the world a better place.”
Williams is the president of a nonprofit organization called Joshua's Heart. Its sole purpose is aimed at “stomping out world hunger.” With the help of family and countless volunteers, Joshua's Heart has helped 8,000 individuals in the Miami area by donating nearly 500,000 pounds of food since 2007.
His remarkable story has been featured on national news networks. Even the White House requested he blog about his mission. But had it not been for the Oklahoma City nonprofit Feed The Children, he might never have become one of the nation's youngest philanthropists.
At 4 years old, Williams began noticing those less fortunate around him. When his grandmother gave him $20, he gave it to a homeless man on the street. When he saw a television advertisement for Feed The Children a couple of weeks later, he wanted his mother, Claudia McLean, to adopt the starving African children on the screen.
“That's great that he wanted siblings,” McLean laughed. “But we couldn't adopt all the children.”
Williams then shifted his focus to donating food to the needy. After plenty of begging, he got his wish. But McLean might have been reluctant to dive in head first. After all, she was a single mother trying to make ends meet.
But she saw something in her son that was different. He was walking at 6 months.
At school, teachers raved about his maturity at a young age. His persistence and wise-beyond-his-years approach made McLean believe she was meant to help him.
“I just look at him as my gift,” McLean said. “I'm just here to help him in whatever he decides to do.”
So they started cooking and hand-delivering hot meals to the homeless in their area. When the city made them stop, they looked into starting a food distribution center. But they had no idea what that would take, until fate threw another curveball into Williams' growing passion.
“It's funny, because sometimes when things are destined to happen, they just happen no matter what you do,” McLean said. “(Williams' aunt) was listening to a radio station one day, and there was a lady talking about not-for-profits and ways you can start your own.”
The family got in touch with the professional on the radio, the paperwork was filed, and Joshua's Heart was born — right near Williams' fifth birthday. Every year the foundation grows. So does its president.
“It's a great feeling,” Williams said. “You know that you're doing the right thing in the community. It's a great feeling in your heart. It's a warm feeling. It inspires you to do more.”
Williams leads a junior advisory board composed entirely of children, who spearhead the foundation. Some on the board are as young as 6. He said the adults in the organization are there for the “heavy lifting.” When he's old enough, Williams plans on taking his foundation international.
He took a small step toward that goal in 2012, when Walmart gave a grant to Joshua's Heart that allowed it to donate backpacks filled with food to schoolchildren in Florida. With more donations and volunteers, they hope to bring that campaign nationwide.
That's why Feed The Children flew Williams and his family to Oklahoma City to meet with the leaders within the organization. Williams also got a first look at an exhibit, called Story of Hope, set to open late this spring at Feed The Children's headquarters, at 4529 Enterprise Place. It's an interactive and educational experience that will display the full spectrum of what the non-profit stands for and hopes to accomplish.
“It's just a great experience knowing Feed The Children is doing a great thing in the community,” Williams said. “Getting to have a relationship with them will be a great help. And we'll be able to help more people.”
Williams said he's still just a normal kid when it comes to most things. He loves playing sports and video games with his friends. Some things still frighten him; roller coasters and spiders mostly. But when you've discovered your purpose at such a young age, the important things in life outweigh the small stuff.
“I believe that everyone has a purpose in life,” Williams said. “I believe that this is my purpose in life. I will carry this out the rest of my life, as long as I can, as long as I live.”
World hunger is something that can be fixed. We all have to unite as one and work together to actually solve this problem.”
Joshua Williams, 12,