Says Joe Maddon: “The volunteers are the unsung heroes. Without them, none of our efforts occur.” Every month, the Respect 90 Foundation will salute a distinguished volunteer from the communities of Tampa, FL, Chicago, IL, Mesa, AZ, Southern California, or Joe’s Hometown of Hazleton, PA. Respect 90 will present a $1,000 grant to that volunteer’s charity. Should you have someone who is deserving, please let us know.
Chris Williams | Salvation Army (Bradenton, FL)
Like most of us, Chris Williams has memories of Thanksgiving meals gone by. One in particular stands out. It was November 25, 2010 and while it didn’t include a turkey and the warmth of a family gathering, it’s one Chris won’t forget.
He was living alone in a spartan motel near the Sarasota airport sandwiched between the 7-Eleven and Papa Joe’s Sports Bar.
“I had a Banquet spaghetti dinner, the TV dinner. Two of those for a dollar. It wasn’t fun, but it was an upgrade from living in my car,” he says reflecting on his days of homelessness.
Which is why now Chris, Managing Director of his own digital marketing company and Board Chairman for The Bradenton Salvation Army, buys Thanksgiving dinner for as many people as he can. Last year it was 500, this year he’s aiming for another hundred people who are now where he was.
“For families who just need a leg up,” he says. Chris has never forgotten where he got his own leg up.
It was in the food line at The Sarasota Salvation Army. “Those meals were like fuel for me,” he recalls. “A smile, a friendly ‘enjoy your meal’ from a volunteer worked to keep me motivated and moving forward. The same way we need fuel in our cars, a man needs fuel in his spirit to keep moving forward. You have a nice moment when you’re not worried about the meal, where the next one is coming from at least for an hour or two. That’s how important it was for me.”
At the time, Chris was working the overnight shift at the local Goodwill Industries, overseeing the center’s 24-hour donation station and serving as its de facto security guard.
“Hey, it could have been worse,” laughs Chris. “I wasn’t sleeping on the streets. I wouldn’t recommend the hotel, but it had AC and I was able to get the WiFi from across the fence.”
The WiFi was no small thing because during the day, Chris was working on an innovative internet business plan and the dingy hotel room was a step up from his previous residence: his tan, Chrysler Concord which took him from his native state of Ohio to Florida, not once, but twice.
An Army brat and former high school basketball player with a year of college at Cincinnati State, the 19-year-old Chris was working in a metal plating factory when his life turned.
Through a friend, he heard about the real estate boom in Florida and jumped at what appeared to be a great opportunity. He arrived in 2004 eager to cash in, but within a year or two when the market turned cold, Chris, like many others, lost everything.
He moved back north in 2009, but returned within the year to be with his newborn daughter. “I didn’t necessarily have a plan, didn’t have income,” he admits. “I just wanted to be here. I bounced around couch to couch for a while and that just didn’t work out and I ended up on the street, or in my car.”
Energized by his visits to The Salvation Army, Chris began hatching his plan. “I had dabbled a bit with a company in the online restaurant menu business right before everything went south,” he recalled. It was a start.
During the day, between shifts at Goodwill, Chris, wearing his only pair of nice slacks, began going into businesses, shaking hands, introducing himself. He got a client, then another and still living in the motel, his one-man company, Aginto, was born.
He started building websites and along the way found a commercial realtor near the Goodwill center who needed somebody in his office space to sign for packages. In exchange, he provided Chris with an office. Soon, Chris’ biggest problem was finding time to sleep.
Ten months later he had the means to leave the motel behind. Flash forward to today, Aginto, now a full service digital agency, has seven employees including a social media marketer, content writers, videographer and a google ad expert.
“I’m certainly not the man today I was back in 2010. I don’t think I would have learned the lesson that I have learned any other way.
I didn’t enjoy it then, but I am certainly thankful for it now,” he says.
As soon as his schedule permitted it, Chris began another career: philanthropy. It began in 2014 simply by volunteering to serve dinner once a week at The Bradenton Salvation Army Shelter.
“When I didn’t have to work 16-hour days anymore, I realized I could do something to give back and the first place I thought of was The Salvation Army because of those meals that I had back then. Now I was able to give folks a full belly, a smile and encouragement to keep fighting.”
With a stable, dependable staff at Aginto and a steady income stream, Chris joined the board of another local non-profit, Parenting Matters, and also ratcheted up his time at The Salvation Army shelter.
“I was working in the pantry, delivering food, twice a week, serving dinner, painting. Everything they called for, I did. There was a curb along their fence line that they needed torn up so they gave me a sledge hammer and I went to town on that,” says the man who not surprisingly was named 2016 volunteer of the year.
When Aginto enjoyed another growth spurt, Chris found his time limited, so when he was asked to join The Salvation Army’s board, he gladly accepted.
“I saw the impact that I was able to make at the board level at Parenting Matters, and felt this was an opportunity to be just as impactful as I was when I was outside tearing up the curb or painting, but not have to spend as much time necessarily,” says Chris, who in 2019 accepted the position of president of the board. “I’ll serve as long as you’ll have me,” he told The Salvation Army officials.
Says Kelly French, the shelter’s Director of Community Relations & Development: “Chris brings so much passion and compassion to us. It doesn’t matter if he’s serving dinner to our homeless clients or discussing finances with our board members, he treats everyone with respect and compassion. Chris uses his experience as a small business owner to guide him in making decisions and suggestions that will benefit our shelter and those we serve.”
As a former client and current volunteer, Chris also brings a unique perspective to the board. “Just last week we had an issue and I said, ‘Hey, I’ve been there, I have seen that and I think this is the route we should go,’” he recalled. “I feel like if I wasn’t on the board the other members might not know those kind of things.”
Chris also has a message for others in his shoes. “Every person should try to give back, but especially every entrepreneur. Being one means you have a little more responsibility. When you work for yourself, the community has been good, you should give back to the community. As an entrepreneur, you should have a little more flexibility in your schedule. It’s a blessing, but it’s a responsibility.”
Rick Vaughn | Executive Director, Respect 90 Foundation
For more information on the Bradenton Salvation Army, visit SalvationArmyBradenton.org.