Joshua Williams was four and a half years old when he figured out his life’s calling. He discovered it by listening to his heart.
“My grandmother gave me $20. I saw a homeless man. I felt really bad. I gave him the $20. I felt good, but I wanted to do more,” said Joshua, now 12 and a Miami Beach resident recently honored by BET with a Shine A Light Award by for his work with his nonprofit Joshua’s Heart Foundation.
Joshua begged his two aunts to help him start a program to help feed the hungry.
“They didn’t do anything. I fired them,” he recalled. Then Joshua asked his mom, who was used to his persistence and his new ideas.
“After a while, she saw I was really serious,” he said.
He and his family (grandmother, mom and aunts) started giving cooked meals to homeless people every Saturday. His grandmother cooked and he, his mom and aunts helped package the food in containers to take to downtown Miami to feed the homeless.
Soon, there was a line of 150 people waiting for them weekly. But a city ordinance stopped them from continuing their distribution there. Joshua was not about to give up though. They moved their operation to his grandmother’s church.
“We would help families at the church or in the North Miami community at first,” said Claudia McLean, Joshua’s mother. “He said, ‘We can’t just give them a bag of rice and vegetables. Each time, he demanded more.”
Joshua explains. “We started small. It is easier now because we have volunteers. There’s a bigger demand, more people need help. We try to keep up. I do my best.”
Joshua’s Heart Foundation has been distributing meals for almost eight years, since 2005. The organization became a nonprofit in 2007—and yes, his aunts now volunteer and help distribute food with him. The foundation has distributed over 500,000 pounds of food as part of its mission to stomp out world hunger and break the cycle of poverty.
Sounding like a man instead of a boy, Joshua offered, “A lot of people think Miami is only for the rich and has sandy beaches. There are beautiful beaches and lots of rich people, but there are areas that have a lot of poor people too.”
His mother calls him “very passionate. He believes this is his purpose.”
“I believe this purpose was given to me by God,” said Joshua. “I know I am doing the right thing because it comes naturally to me. I am a natural leader. I am happy with what we are doing now but not satisfied yet. We need to do more; there is so much more to do, but I cannot do this alone.”
“I’m just the secretary and I do what I am told and what I can do,” his mother said, laughing.
Joshua said he has three goals in life.
“My main goal is to be a scientist and do a double major in biology and engineering, so I can do cool stuff and find a cure for cancer or some other diseases. If that doesn’t work out, which I believe it will–and hope, my backup is to be a basketball star and give a lot of my money back to the community.”
Because of his example, he has been able to recruit pint-sized volunteers, many of them his friends and schoolmates. He said they have “600 young people and over 650 adult volunteers.”
“My foundation is very unique in that our donors can come and see who we are helping and where their money is going–unlike a lot of other foundations where you give money and don’t know where it is going,” said Joshua, adding, “You don’t find a lot of foundations that use kids my age.”
He loves talking to and learning from the people who show up to get food or to volunteer. But his mother said Joshua is the one teaching her.
McLean said, “I’m constantly learning from Joshua saying, ‘Mom, we can’t stop; we can’t give up. I want us to fight world hunger.’ He says, ‘If they can get up and go, I should get up to help them.’ Trust me, it hasn’t been easy. It is a lot of work. But he said, ‘No mom, this is my purpose.’ What do you say to that?”
She calls her son “a book full of ideas” and notes that he walked and talked early. “He’s God’s gift to me. From Joshua, I’ve learned patience and understanding and to be more giving.”
Joshua said from the first time he gave that $20 to the homeless man, he knew he had accomplished something because it felt right.
“We’re not finished,” he promises. He wants to solve world hunger and expand Joshua’s Heart Foundation, which is in Jamaica and Florida now, to other states, Canada, the Caribbean and on and on.
And though he is a child, he is not naive. “Africa is one of the first places I want to go because they have so many issues and hungry people. There are other problems I can’t do myself. I would need the government and other people to help, but I want to help in as many ways as I can: Help people get medication, teach people to invest properly, teach people to farm, help them get clean water.
“I want to have a mission trip with 20 or 30 volunteers to Africa, including doctors,” he said.
His mother paused. “I didn’t know about this,” she said. “I learn something new every day from him.”
Joshua started talking about teaching young people how to invest and spend wisely then he learned about the business magnate, investor, and philanthropist Warren Buffet on television and wanted to learn his techniques and share them with others. “If they know how to spend, then they can save more and help themselves more,” he said.
Meanwhile, the nonprofit is searching for grants, sponsors and donors because their programs are growing so quickly. Their efforts include visiting the elderly, working in a community garden, healthy cooking lessons, and a Junior Advisory Board.
They have a food backpack program that feeds children on weekends and during the summer. These are children who would normally receive free or reduced lunches from school.
“The first time they come, they get a backpack,” said Joshua. “Then every Friday they get breakfast, lunch and dinner for Saturday and Sunday.”
Each time a child returns, he brings his backpack and it is filled.
Joshua’s hard work and big heart have not gone unnoticed. In addition to the BET award, he has received the 2013 Prudential Spirit of Community Award and last fall went to the White House to be honored as a Champion of Change. He was the youngest recipient of that award.
But Joshua will tell you he is just beginning. On the organization’s website, he has this promise: “I am going to give people food and things so they can find a way to help themselves. Whenever I work, I will give some of my money to help. I have the liberty to help the poor, you have the liberty too and together we can all make a difference in the world. I need all kids and adults to help me to make a difference. Thank you, Joshua.”