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Nunbelievable Stories: How Joshua Williams Started a Lifelong Mission to Feed the Hungry When He Was Just 5 Years Old

Nunbelievable Stories: How Joshua Williams Started a Lifelong Mission to Feed the Hungry When He Was Just 5 Years Old
At Nunbelievable we love sharing stories about people on the front lines in the fight against hunger. One young man who we find truly inspiring is Joshua Williams, who started working to help those in need before his fifth birthday and has created a foundation that has provided food to nearly half a million people in need. Joshua grew up in Miami, Florida, and began helping those less fortunate when he was just 4-and-a-half years old. He soon created Joshua's Heart Foundation, which has grown over the years to become a truly remarkable organization. With an emphasis on empowering young people to take a leadership role, the foundation has raised over a million dollars and distributed well over 2 million pounds of food. In 2012, Joshua became the youngest recipient of the White House's Champions of Change Award, an Obama administration honor that recognized individuals who were doing extraordinary things to make a difference in their communities. Joshua is now a sophomore at New York University (NYU) and he recently stopped by the Nunbelievable offices to chat with our co-founder Kuda Biza about his incredible journey.
Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

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PHOTO CAPTION: Nunbelievable Co-Founder & CMO, Kuda Biza (left) interviewing Founder of Joshua Heart Foundation, Joshua Williams (right) at the Nunbelievable office in New York City. 

 

You're a sophomore at NYU now. How do you like school?

I'm studying finance at [NYU's] Stern School of Business and I really enjoy it. New York is great. It's a bit colder than Miami, but I love it overall.

How are you handling this transition in your life?

When you’re in college, you're away from your family and in a totally different environment, but I think I've been able to handle it well just because of the experience the foundation has given me. I was always traveling for business or meetings, so being away from home wasn't necessarily weird or different. I just have to be a little bit more independent in a different way.

 

How has your involvement with the foundation changed since you've been in college?

It's different. In my last two years of high school I was talking to my mom and my team about what direction we should take the organization. We realized we had a great group of youth volunteers who were ready to take over most of the responsibilities. I do still handle a lot of the administrative work, but I'm not there for the day-to-day stuff.

 

Let's go back to the beginning. How does someone so young even get the idea to start something like this?

Joshua's Heart started when I was 4-and-a-half. My grandmother gave me a $20 bill. I was going to church one Sunday and we stopped at a red light and there was a man outside the window with a sign that said "Need Food, Lost My Job." My mom explained that he was homeless and living on the street. And that impacted me more than anything else. I wanted to do something about that. I wanted to help him. I realized that the $20 I had, he needed it more than I did. And I ended up giving it to him. Even though I was 4-and-a-half and didn't really understand the extent of what he was going through, or if the $20 meant anything, it was really about me giving back. And over time I realized I wanted to do more.

What happened next?

I went to my mom and asked her to help me do something in the community. She shot me down immediately, so I had to figure out another way! I went to my aunts. I didn't really have a plan. But they didn't really do anything so I fired them.

 

So you fired someone at age 4-and-a-half?

Yeah, I had to! To keep my dream and my mission moving I had to make some hard decisions. When I was a little older I hired them back. But then at the time I went back to my mom and for three months I begged her [to help me]. I was really stubborn. And I still am! But I was so persistent that she finally said, "OK, I'll help you out." But even after that she didn't take me seriously. I had no plan. I just had a desire, a passion to do something.

 

What we started doing was cooking food for people in our neighborhood — Jamaican food. My family is Jamaican and we'd always go to my grandmother's house for dinner and it would feel like Thanksgiving or Christmas. Everyone would bring food and cook. My cousins, all of us. It was just a natural thing for us to do. All of my family has always been very giving and caring.

We just did that for two years. This was just my family giving out of our pockets. It started off that we were giving food to five people. In two months it was 15. And over time in about eight to 12 months we were giving food about 150 to 200 people every weekend. 

When did you create the foundation?

We officially incorporated when I was 7 years old. We got shut down by the cops, actually. There are ordinances and you need permits. We got too big to do this without a permit. We stopped for a couple of weeks and then just by chance my aunt heard about [non-profit charitable organization] 501(c)(3)'s on the radio. So we started looking into it, because we realized this was the path we wanted to take. And that's how Joshua's Heart was formed. This was a passion of mine and my family helped guide me in the right direction. As I got older I was able to take over more responsibilities.

How did you do that?

When I was about 12 or 13 I had to start looking at how I could follow my passion and how to we grow, how do we get more kids involved, how do we accomplish our short-term goals and our long-term goals.

 

What kind of impact that Joshua's Heart is making today?

The best way to explain it is that after we stopped giving out food directly to the homeless we created an event called "the distribution," which is where we gave out food in a more organized manner. We'd get a truckload of food and we'd go to churches, schools, community centers and bring food because these were places where it's easier for families to meet us. It's kind of like a mobile food pantry. And we were able to help anywhere from 350 to 1,000 families in less than three hours, and give them two weeks worth of food. 

 

Over time we got more volunteers and we were getting media attention so we started to expand and adapt. So Joshua's Heart today is a mixture of the distribution program, our food pantry, weekly distributions, foreign aid, youth advocacy groups, speaking and awareness programs. We have a Junior Advisory Board, which is a group of kids who are really passionate about giving back. We work with over 25,000 youth volunteers but these are 80 kids who are really dedicated to making a change. We teach them business skills, philanthropy, etc. And we encourage them to start their own projects and we help and guide them through that mission. It's kind of like group mentorship.

How many people has Joshua's Heart helped?

So far we've fed about 450,000 individuals around the world over the last seven years. That's about 2.2 million pounds of food, and we've raised $1.2 million.

 

That's incredible. Obviously you're helping so many others, but what can you tell us about what this all means to you personally?

It’s a passion for me. I am most comfortable when I'm giving back. People think that giving back is selfless, but I think, while it's not selfish, when you help people you feel good about yourself. It's taught me so much about life and the state of our world. The giving and receiving process is two ways. The more I give, the more I receive, the more I learn, the more I grow as a person.

 

Joshua's Heart Foundation is a youth-led organization. Why is that important to you? And now that you're an adult, what does that mean? 

I wouldn't say I'm an adult yet, but I think before I incorporated we looked for other youth organizations for me to join and you had to be at least 13 years old, and usually you had to be 16 to 18. And because my age was a limiting factor when I started the organization we wanted to make it that anybody of any age could join us. We have 18-month-old babies hold cans, and [also] people who are 80 or 90 years old help out. It's a community. It's not about who's giving the most. It's about being aware that you can make a change. It's very important to me that people of my generation know that they have the power to give back. But we're not completely youth-run. Our youth look to the adults for advice. They have experience that can help us. Kids and adults look at the world differently and I think a balance between both leads to great changes.

 

How did you balance the responsibilities of Joshua's Heart with everything else in your life, like school and friends?

It's different now that I'm in college. My freshman and sophomore years in high school I was traveling almost every weekend for meetings, events, awards. After sophomore year I got a little burned out, and I learned that you have to carefully balance your work life and your personal life. When I came to NYU I started rock climbing, and that helped me balance out and de-stress. You have to look at yourself and what you value. You have to understand that when you're trying to do something big there are a lot of sacrifices you have to make. And I had to make a lot of sacrifices in terms of friendships, going out partying. Looking back now, I would make the same sacrifices again because they really allowed me to find my purpose.

What's been the coolest or most exciting thing that's happened to you because of this? Don't be humble!

A couple of things pop in my head. First would be all the amazing people I've met in business and philanthropy. I see people who have achieved their dreams. That's been a great experience and I never would have met them if not for Joshua's Heart. One cool thing that happened was when I got the "Shine a Light" award at the BET Awards and I got to meet a lot of celebrities and see some cool performances, like Kendrick Lamar. Being on CNN Heroes was also amazing. They do a great job every year recognizing people who are making changes. Joshua's Heart has really helped show me so much.

 

Where do you see Joshua's Heart going in the next few years?

It's growing, even without me being there directly. We're learning how to give back more efficiently, how to raise money better, how to teach kids how to make change. We're transforming from an idea into a revolution, to teach kids how to inspire change.

 

How can we help?

First thing is to start helping around your neighborhood. As a personal mission statement I would like everybody to be kind to people around them. You never know what people are going through in their life and I think having a general mindset of being nice and kind to people is really underrated.

For Joshua's Heart, you can check out our website, joshuasheart.org, and follow us on social media and spread awareness about hunger and poverty. And just know that you can make a difference, no matter how small it is.

 

We are looking for the people we interview to share with us what we're calling a "#NunbelievableMoment" in their lives. That would be a time when someone made an unexpected or selfless act of kindness for you that really inspired you. Can you share one with us?

Joshua's Heart has given me so many inspiring moments, like seeing people going out of their way to help others and make a difference. Seeing kids who I have inspired starting their own projects [and] how their acts have created a cycle, a movement, has really inspired me.