At his lowest point struggling with homelessness and drug and alcohol addiction in the 1990s, Doug Williams spent the night sleeping in the Larimer Avenue Field.
“You’re bringing up some tough, old memories,” says an emotional Williams, who now works at the Centre Avenue YMCA as head cook, housing coordinator and case manager. “I had a great life, my girlfriend and I were doing well. I worked in the food-services industry and it was always good to me. But I went from that to being homeless for a year looking for my next fix.”
While laying in the field that night, a time when gang violence in the neighborhood was a constant problem, Williams heard gunfire ring out. Not in the distance, but right above him, over his head. It went on for several minutes and when it stopped, he stood up.
“These guys were there and they had no idea that I had been laying in the middle of this shooting,” Williams says. “They also couldn’t believe that I didn’t get shot. I couldn’t believe it either. I began thinking about how I’d survive if God chose to wake me up the next day.
“A short time after that, I was in Garfield sitting in the middle of the street when these two detectives walked up behind me. That was my last run. I spent six months in the Allegheny County jail in a program called Strength Incorporated and it saved my life.”
These days, Williams life is more than just together. Early next year, he will graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in social and human services from Geneva College in May.
“My life has improved so much and that’s why I want to help as many people as I can achieve their best life,” Williams says. “You know, when I went to school as a kid, I went on the ‘little bus,’ they said I was slow and later told me I wasn’t college material. But going into my second year at the CCAC, I was on the Dean’s List. Now, I’m getting my Bachelor’s degree. I want to show people that you can do what you set your mind to.”
Through his work at the YMCA, he’s helping individuals and families get their lives back in order. He does that through his cooking talents and his work as a case manager, mentoring people who were once in the same position he was.
He’s able to do that through donations to the YMCA and fundraisers, which also go to a slew of other YMCA programs across the Pittsburgh Region. In fact, one of the organization’s biggest fundraisers will take place on Thanksgiving morning, Nov. 22. The Turkey Trot begins at PNC Park and features five different races: a one-mile family fun run at 8 a.m., the 5K Turkey Trot Walk/Run at 8:30 a.m., the Gentile, Horoho & Avalli Double Gobble: 5K at 8:30 a.m., a 5-mile course at 9:15 a.m. and a YAchievers 5-mile run at 9:15 a.m. This year the YMCA is also partnering with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.
Williams says funds raised from the race are essential to the YMCA’s programs and ability to help others. At the Centre Avenue YMCA alone, funds help 24 families in the community as well as 67 men that receive residential services through the YMCA.
“The funds we get help a lot of people,” WIlliams says. “We have nearly 70 men who live here daily and this money allows us to give them three square meals a day. They’re not going to live here forever, we help them get back on their feet and it’s easier for them to do that because they’re not worried about food. We’ll feed them and others in our community who need the assistance.
“Across the region, the Greater Pittsburgh YMCA is able to do that for thousands of people because of donations.”