Each Thursday afternoon, as long as they have shown good behavior, the fifth grade boys at Booker T. Washington Magnet Elementary School get to leave their classroom behind and spend time learning life lessons from their mentor, Morris Williams.
Williams himself is a product of Washington Elementary, attending in the late 1950s. He eventually served in the Army, graduated from Philander Smith College, and went on to receive a graduate degree from the University of Arkansas. So when Williams talks to the students about time management, commitment, and responsibility, they know he’s practiced what he preaches.
For the first couple years, teachers would select individual students who they thought could most benefit from Williams’ presence. Eventually, they decided to give every fifth grade boy the opportunity to participate in the “club.” At a school where 95 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, the presence of a consistent, professional male role model can make a big impact.
“We get to have a man, Mr. Williams, tell us about life and how we can succeed and not end up in jail,” one of the students in the program said. “He likes to teach us things and he’s always nice.”
Katherine Snyder, principal of Washington Magnet School, was one of several people who nominated Williams for an Arkansas Community Service Award, for which he was selected as a recipient.
“Mr. Williams strives to help level the playing field for our students and offers them opportunities to improve their lives,” she wrote.
It’s not just the students in the program who benefit from Williams’ service. He volunteers as a career day speaker at Washington Magnet, organizes and accompanies students on field trips, attends their basketball games, their fifth grade promotion ceremonies, helps secure school supplies, bicycles, and volunteers at community events in the neighborhoods around the school.
Williams, an active member of the community-minded Omega Psi Phi fraternity for more than 50 years, ramped up his volunteer work after reaching partial retirement.
“When you know there’ san opp to do something to help somebody better themselves, and if you can be instrumental in doing that, it’s just very important to me,” he said.
If there’s one person Williams has definitively helped, it’s a student at UAPB named Kahleel Jones. They met six years ago after Williams’ fraternity chapter teamed up with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Arkansas. Williams didn’t want to encourage his fraternity brothers to sign up to be Big Brothers if he wasn’t going to do it himself. After he completed the required training, he was matched with Jones, who was 13 at the time – quiet, shy, and unsure his new mentor would stick around.
“I asked him how long this was going to last, because I was used to people coming in and out,” Jones recalled with a smile. “He said, ‘This is gonna last forever,’ which kind of shocked me. He wasn’t lying because we’re still together.”
Their formal pairing ended when Khaleel aged out of the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, but their relationship is still strong. Williams checks in with Khaleel weekly, and reminds him of the same things he tells the children at Washington: Manage your time well. Focus on your priorities. Take responsibility. Khaleel takes the advice to heart, but mostly watches how his friend and mentor carries himself. That’s the man he wants to be, he said.