EWU alumnus’ past guides community service efforts

By Wilson Criscione, News Writer

Tommy Williams encountered endless obstacles before founding non-profit organization Operation Healthy Family, and at every hurdle he has overcome, he remembers one moment: Sitting in the dean’s office of his high school in Chicago, being told he’s expelled.

“That moment changed my whole future,” Williams said.

Williams was expelled for bullying a classmate to the point where the classmate’s hair fell out from the harassment. It ignited a long journey which inevitably led him to eastern Washington, where he founded Operation Healthy Family. The organization reaches out to children across the area in a variety of ways, whether it is informing them about oral health or teaching them how to play disc golf. But the program Williams devotes the most time to is his “See It, Say It” program, where he tours Spokane public schools in an effort to prevent bullying.

Williams used to be a star football player. At his private high school in Chicago, many players on the team were being recruited by football powers like Notre Dame, Illinois or Wisconsin. When Williams was placed on varsity as a sophomore, a rare feat, he saw a road to the NFL. He used to be bullied when he was younger, but as soon as he made varsity, the tables turned.

“My head just got big, man,” Williams said.

After the expulsion, he went to Hyde Park Career Academy, a Chicago public high school. But he still had problems. He missed class, had too much fun and his grades plummeted. He graduated with a 1.6 GPA. While his friends were talking about the colleges they were going to, he again went back in his mind to the time in Father Schonowski’s office when he was expelled, wondering how things could be different.

He decided to go to a community college. Though Illinois still wanted to give him a football scholarship, he could not get his grades up to earn it.

That is when EWU showed up on his doorstep, asking him to come to Washington to play football. He accepted, and he flourished with Eastern’s team.

“I played every game at EWU thinking about Father Schonowski’s office, pissed off,” Williams said. “We balled out.”

After leaving Eastern early and being projected as a seventh round pick, nobody in the NFL drafted him. So he went to the Canadian Football League. One of the players ahead of him in the rotation was signed by the Kansas City Chiefs, so he had high hopes that he could be signed too if he played well.

He broke his ankle in his first game.

“You know what I was thinking about, right? 1987, Father Schonowski’s office,” he said.

While attempting to get his life together, he eventually went back to Eastern to finish his degree in criminal justice before going on to complete a master’s degree in sports risk management at WSU.

He wanted to help people, but not be suppressed while doing it.

So he created Operation Healthy Family. Recently, the anti-bullying campaign has taken off. He now tours 12 schools in the Spokane area where he teaches kids how to stop the bullying cycle by not being an idle bystander, and instead being what he says is a “reactor.” And more schools are calling him.

“It’s all the things I learned about in my life,” Williams said. “I wrote them down in this program.”

The program emphasizes the need for kids to be a friend to victims of bullying and to report it. They urge schools to have a website or hotline where incidents can be safely documented by students.

Harvey Howell is a member of the hip-hop group Level Ground that performs at the “See It, Say It” assemblies. He has joined forces with Operation Healthy Family, and, like Williams, also grew up in Chicago. To Howell, it is important not just to talk “at” kids, but to get them involved.

“No one wants to be a snitch, but you have to stand up as a human and report what you don’t like,” Howell said.

Howell believes bullying shapes long-term decision making more than anything else, for both the victim and the bully.

That is certainly true for Williams.

In addition to “See It, Say It,” Operation Healthy Family has set up an after-school disc golf program that kids can join for $35. If they cannot afford that fee, the child and their family can do five hours of community service at Second Harvest Food Bank to waive the fee.

“It’s part of our philosophy to not give hand outs, but hand ups,” Williams said.

Additionally, Operation Healthy Family is looking to partner with EWU’s athletic department to gather dedicated volunteers who want to mentor kids in the organization’s summer basketball league.

Williams is always looking for volunteers to help him with assemblies or fundraisers.

He has come a long way from Father Schonowski’s office in Chicago, and his help around the community is just beginning.

“We don’t have to settle,” Williams said. “We can join forces with other like-minded businesses, organizations and schools, and create the community we want to live in.”