ELIZABETH, NJ - Michael Williams, Jr. stood before a room filled with youth living within New Jersey's child services system and struggled to begin his story. Williams, a community organizer, behaviorist and licensed social worker at the nonprofit Community Access Unlimited (CAU), is proud of what he has accomplished in life, but less so of the decisions he made as a youth.
Presenting as the keynote speaker for CAU's 2018 Annual Youth Conference, Williams told the audience of about 200 young people that he grew up in Trenton, surrounded by poverty, drugs, and gangs. He said he watched his parents constantly fighting and at times slept in a car with his sister and mother when she would leave home with them. While he never joined a gang, most of his friends did, and he would join them as they assaulted people for sport, he said. He told the youths how he witnessed one friend get attacked by a man with a machete and another got shot.
"I'll be honest with you, the street life gave me a thrill," he said. "I didn't have any goals. I just cared about looking good and feeling good."
Williams attended four high schools in five years and was expelled from the last one for stealing and cheating, he said. The principal spoke to him before he left.
"He told me he knew I wasn't a bad kid, I was just making bad decisions," Williams said. "He told me to learn from my mistakes."
A star athlete, Williams said he hit rock bottom when he was expelled and denied playing basketball his senior year. He decided then to complete high school and go on to college. He entered Bloomfield College, made the dean's list his first semester and earned a bachelor's degree in finance. From there, he pursued his master's degree in social work at Kean University.
"I didn't make it through school because I was smart or had all the answers," he said. "I made it through school because I went to class and did the work."
As Williams spoke, many of the youth in the audience nodded their heads, as if they understood all he had endured.
"Had I not had a support group, I would not have been able to get here," he told them. "I had people around me who cared about me, and a lot of times, they cared about me more than I cared about myself."
For the youths in attendance, their support groups include the agencies that care for them. CAU's Annual Youth Conference is an opportunity for the youths from the agency's Transitional Opportunities Program and other agencies from throughout the state to come together and share experiences and learn, according to Michelle Mobley, a program director at CAU.
In addition to the keynote speech, the conference also features breakout sessions, with this year’s including bullying, social media/cyber-bullying, healthy relationships and creative arts for the youth and avoiding burnout for staff members form the visiting agencies.
"The conference brings together youth from throughout the state and helps them learn about life skills while giving them a chance to have fun in a learning environment," Mobley said. "It's also a great opportunity for the staff of all the different programs to come together."
Khalid Cromwell, 15, who has been with CAU for two months, said he found the conference and Williams' talk inspiring. Like Williams when he was younger, Cromwell is not sure what he wants to do after graduating high school but is committed to something positive, such as working with youth like himself.
"I learned life is not always easy, but you can accomplish a lot if you work hard," he said.
Casandra Jeffers, 21, is also a CAU member who attended the conference. Before coming to the agency 18 months ago, she was living in a shelter in Newark. Now her goals include completing cosmetology school and becoming a clothing designer.
"At this conference, I learned it doesn’t matter where you start from, it only matters where you finish," she said. "(Williams) had a lot of the background we all have, and now he's very successful. That's something to look forward to."
Community Access Unlimited is a Union County-based statewide nonprofit that works to integrate people with disabilities and at-risk youth into the general community, supports its members with housing, vocational skills, and life-skills training, education, advocacy, and recreation.
They currently serve more than 5,000 individuals and families and continues to grow each year. For more information about CAU and its services, contact them by phone at 908.354.3040, firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail at 80 West Grand Street, Elizabeth, NJ 07202.