Most 16 year olds are worried about little, frivolous things in life — what to wear to school, when to study for an upcoming biology quiz, or where to shop at the mall.
Desmond Willingham, at age 16, was worried if he was going to find a place to sleep at night. Every night. Worse, he was worried whether he had a future. “I’ve had some really tough times, but I never gave up,” Willingham tells The Madison Times. “But I’m thankful to the Goodman Community Center. They do a lot of good for the community and have done a lot of good things for me. It’s an amazing place.”
Tall and skinny with a quiet demeanor, Willingham is one of those success stories that you love to hear about over and over. Kicked out of his house by his mother at age 16, Willingham was a prime candidate to be overwhelmed by gangs, drugs, poverty, and crime. Instead, today he’s on a path to success. Many thanks to the Goodman Community Center where he currently works in their kitchen as he goes to school at Work & Learning High School.
“There’s something special about him,” says Becky Steinhoff, executive director of the Goodman Community Center. “He has an integrity about him that is pretty remarkable.
“He’s been working at the Goodman Center for a little over a year and you can clearly see what a tremendous young man he is and great asset to the kitchen,” Steinhoff adds. “He’s grown to be an indispensable part of the kitchen team, which is very different from other young people who work in the kitchen. He’s been taking on more leadership roles and more mentoring of kids who were where he was a year or two ago.”
And just a couple of years ago, things looked really bleak for Willingham.
“When I first moved here from Peoria, Ill., I was enrolled at [Madison] East [High School] and it was a huge change from my old high school — much, much bigger,” Willingham says. “I felt uncomfortable at the school so I never went. I’m not really a classroom kind of person — I don’t really do well in a school setting. My attendance got so bad that there was no way that I could recover from it. ”
Just 16 years old, he started to talk to his counselor about other things that he could do and she gave him a pamphlet with a bunch of alternative programs in it and “Work & Learn” seemed to be the best option for him because he could get a job while going to school. Alternative schools like Work & Learn are public schools that offer nontraditional education for students whose needs cannot be met in a regular, special education, or vocational school.
But right around the time he started going to Work & Learn, his mother kicked him out of their small apartment they shared on East Main Street on Madison’s near east side. “We were arguing a lot and she told me to get out,” Willingham says. “For a while I was just walking around homeless and couch surfing for a bit. A friend of mine said I could stay with him for a while, but that fell out, too.”
Nothing was working for Willingham in Madison and he thought that maybe he should just go back to his hometown of Peoria, Ill. He put all of his stuff in a U-Haul truck and brought it all back to Peoria. “It was parked outside my brother’s house in Peoria for a night,” Willingham remembers. “The next morning, all my stuff was gone. The trailer was wide open. My TVs were gone. My PS3 [Play Station 3) was gone .... everything.”
Back to Madison
So things went from bad to worse, but Willingham, who had no job yet in Peoria, remembered that he was still supposed to be working at the Goodman Center. “I ended up coming back two-and-a-half weeks later and started going back to school and saying to myself, ‘OK. I have to at least try to get my diploma. I need to try to do something,’” he remembers. “When I came back to the Goodman Center, instead of being upset and asking where I was they were just happy to see me. That really blew me away. That just meant something to me. I’ve never had that in my life.”
The Goodman Community Center is a 501-C3 nonprofit organization on Madison’s near east side that works to — among other things — help build a sense of community among neighborhood residents; provide opportunities for social activities, education, social development, and nourishment to at-risk children; and organize and sponsor community events for education, socializing, and celebration
The friendly people of the Goodman Center and their open-arms acceptance of Willingham are what inspired him during his darkest times. “I couldn’t believe that people cared about me,” Willingham says. “I felt like there might actually be a point to doing everything. There was a reason for me to be here and a reason to try and do my best — to want to work. It meant a lot to me.”
Unfortunately, he was homeless again. “I was walking around with my backpack and my luggage case that was full of my essentials and clothes… a lot of the time I couldn’t find somebody’s house I could stay over at so I just kept walking around all night waiting until I could go to school and go to work the next day,” Willingham remembers.
He let it slip to his current boss that he was homeless and he was able to set him up with somebody at Goodman who deals with housing. “She helped me a lot. She got me five different numbers of people who had housing,” Willingham says. “They seemed to like me and they seemed to understand where I was coming from. That was huge for me. I felt like, ‘I can do this!’ It gave me confidence.
“Everybody here [at Goodman] is essentially a positive role model for me. They are always nice and friendly,” Willingham adds. “My current boss, Rebecka [Selmer, the Goodman Center Food Resources Training Manager,] and I chat about my problems and she gives me advice. All of the people here keep encouraging me to go back to school and get my diploma. Even just working here has taught me [about] personal responsibility — because if I’m not here in the afternoon, there will be nobody to give the kids the food. Then the programs can’t go on. My job makes me feel like I’m actually doing something, which is a big push to keep on going.”
Willingham goes to school in the morning and then comes into Goodman a little before noon and helps get the lunches out to seniors, preschoolers, and the teen program that are here all day.
“He’s responsible —under our chef — for the production of the 5 o’clock meal,” Steinhoff says. “He really does take the lead. By the time he’s serving that 5 o’clock meal, our professional chef is gone. He is really in charge.”
Willingham has big plans for the future as his life become more and more structured and organized. He plans to go to Culinary Arts School at Madison College next fall. “It will be a big step for me. I’m graduating from Work & Learn in January,” he says. “I’ll be getting a diploma and I’m excited about that.
“Being involved at the Goodman Center has shown me that I can do so many positive things when not too long ago I felt like there was nothing I could do right,” Willingham continues. “The director, Becky, gave me a lot of compliments on how articulate and smart I was. Nobody ever told me that before. It was a big boost of confidence for me.”
It’s been a long journey in a short time for a youngster who was stuck in an awful situation and feeling sad, confused, and hopeless. He didn’t think he had any possibilities in life. Willingham wants young people reading this story who may have felt like he once did to know that they should never give up.
“Just keep trying to do what you know you should do — what’s right for you,” Willingham said. “Try to get that education so you can get a good job in the future so you’re not struggling you’re whole life. Try to realize that although you’re in this position right now, it doesn’t mean that you always have to be in this position. You can do something to get yourself in a better position and move forward with life.”
The statistics can be daunting. There are countless examples of kids like Desmond who don’t make it and end up in really bad places — the obstacles are just too much to overcome. But places like the Goodman Community Center are working to change those numbers. “It’s so fun and heartwarming to see young people progress and become a part of a team,” Steinhoff says. “To go from having a bad attitude to being a positive contributor. To see the transformation... that’s quite remarkable.”
That’s the transformation she saw in Desmond Willingham.
“There’s so much you can do as long as you put the effort in and actually believe in yourself,” Willingham says. “Right now, [you] might be like, ‘I’m homeless, I’m broke, I’m by myself.’ But that doesn’t mean that tomorrow has to be the same thing. Life is long. You can do it. There’s so much out there for you.”
For more information about the Goodman Community Center and their people and programs, please visit www.goodmancenter.org