Did a teacher make a significant difference in your life?
If so, you’re not alone.
This is the story of an extraordinary teacher, a troubled student whose life she helped to change and a tip that could help you to make a wonderful difference in your life today.
In 1958, before the U.S. Civil Rights movement took hold, Helen Mary Williams, a white teacher at a predominantly black inner-city Pasadena (CA) elementary school began something unusual; she started taking her students on nature walks.
She wanted to get them out of the inner-city turmoil and show them how beautiful life could be. Parents, guardians, family members and other teachers were welcome to join.
Those nature walks became so popular, that Mrs. Williams expanded them to include overnight camping trips into the High Sierra, Death Valley and other pristine destinations.
As the popularity of these trips grew, in 1962 Mrs. Williams formed Outward Bound Adventures, a non-profit organization to take at-risk youth from all over the Los Angeles area into such gorgeous natural settings.
Instead of drug dealers, gangs and other unsavory parts of inner-city life the young people found a world of dark green pine trees and gentle warm breezes. In place of the roar of car engines and the squeal of bus brakes, they could hear cascading water falls and breathe fresh air.
And they had in Mrs. Williams, a science teacher passionate about the environment who was like a second mother there to nurture them.
In her personal life, Mrs. Williams had been briefly married many years earlier and had no close family or children of her own. These children became her family.
Then in 1968, while she was teaching at Pasadena’s McKinley Junior High School, she got a big challenge in 13-year old Charles Thomas. “I got kicked out of every class in the 8th grade,” said Thomas. “The only reason I didn’t get expelled was she agreed to take me for every period…”
Thomas was a tough kid from a family of eight children and later he would spend extensive time in juvenile hall.
He described himself as, “Little Chucky Thomas who used to smoke in the class room and got in fights, never listened to anyone and stole everything he could get his hands on.”
But Mrs. Williams saw his potential and never gave-up on him. She guided him and made him a counselor at Outward Bound Adventures, keeping him actively involved in backpacking trips.
“She taught me how to dream,” said Thomas. “That’s one of the greatest gifts you can give any child.”
Later Mrs. Williams urged him to attend Southern Oregon University and unbeknownst to Thomas, helped to get him in. He became a college graduate and subsequently got a Master’s degree at California State University, Los Angeles.
What became of Charles Thomas? The city of Pasadena hired him and over the years, he rose to a well paid, top level position. Mrs. Williams was very proud of him.
Then in 1993, believing he could do the job better than anyone else, she asked him to become the Executive Director of Outward Bound Adventures. But the pay would be low.
Thomas knew in his heart this was his calling and with his wife Sharon’s concurrence, he took the job. Today, he and Sharon have two daughters and he can afford this job only because he invested wisely in real estate.
Early this year, Mrs. Williams passed away at 86. In her will was a special provision. “She bought 70 acres in Wyoming in the 1970’s for the purpose of building an environmental education center for urban youth,” said Thomas.
“She never got around to building it but she paid off the property. In her will, she left it to my brother [Frankie] and me with the stipulation that we build this environmental education center. I don’t know how we are going to do it but we will get it done.”
As for Outward Bound Adventures (www.obainc.org), this tiny organization with its three person staff and numerous volunteers has now introduced over 40,000 kids to the great outdoors!
Success Tip of the Week: How can you make a significant difference in your life? Be a teacher, a volunteer or mentor. As Helen Mary Williams and Charles Thomas showed us, one or two caring people can make a tremendous difference in the lives of others.
In the next KazanToday: Do you dream the impossible dream? I’ll tell you the incredible story of a man who overcame overwhelming odds to redefine air travel as we know it.