Horatio Williams always knew he wanted to help others.
Raised by his mother and grandmother on the east side of Detroit, Williams said he returned home many nights only to be greeted by strangers whom he would openly treat like family.
“We always helped people. We never had a lock on the door,” Williams said. “Our house was a community house. We wanted people to be comfortable, so the doors were always open.”
Williams cherished the feeling of giving back to his community. His experiences inspired him to establish the Horatio Williams Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to helping metro Detroit youth grow their leadership skills in the concentrated areas of sports, education and community service.
“Horatio’s story of overcoming adversity in life to become a leader for others is remarkable and stands out as a Game Changer,” said Kevin Brown, director of community impact for Ilitch Sports + Entertainment. “We’re honored to support the work of the Horatio Williams Foundation, giving thousands of kids in Detroit the opportunity to succeed.”
As an honoree of the Red Wings’ and Tigers’ 2022 Black History Month Game Changers series, presented by Comerica Bank, Williams points to education and athletics as key factors that shaped him.
“Sports really helped me be a team player,” Williams said. “It also helped me education-wise because you’ve got to have a certain GPA to play sports.”
Growing up, Williams played football and basketball at the Eastside Center and Butzel Middle School, then starred in basketball at Osborn High School in northeast Detroit. Williams’ skills on the court earned him a college scholarship at Tuskegee University.
“Playing sports really helped me in my life,” Williams said. “It’s hard to win individually. Just giving people opportunity helps let them know you can win when you have a team.”
After college, Williams aimed to help teach kids the life lessons and leadership skills he learned so they could also reach their athletic and academic goals. He praises Mr. Foster, his Eastside Colts coach, as the man who inspired him.
“I’ve always had a passion for helping people,” Williams said. “I just needed that encouragement from my coach to really get it started.”
After establishing a non-emergency medical transportation firm in 1992, Williams wanted to give back to his community even more. Thirteen years later, the Horatio Williams Foundation was born.
“[Our mission is], education-wise, to be able to learn on the same level,” Williams said. “Our goal is to strengthen [children] and build their confidence levels back up.”
The nonprofit offers a variety of programs that help children become leaders, ultimately building character and opportunity. Through financial literacy, women’s empowerment and college preparation among others, the organization strives to enrich the community and empower those who call Detroit home.
“When I think about community, I feel safe,” Williams said. “Any kid can come here and feel safe. That’s how I know everybody in the community is supporting everybody.”
More than 3,000 individuals have participated in the foundation’s activities, which range from a two-week basketball camp to a back-to-school clothing drive. According to Williams, seeing the impact his foundation has on kids and their families means the world to him.
“My biggest goal — and I think the reward doing this — is seeing the kids develop,” Williams said. “Seeing them go from kids to adults. We are able to touch so many lives.”
One of the foundation’s largest events is an annual trip to Cedar Point. The idea began in 2004, when Williams took a 15-passenger van of at-risk children whom he had mentored over the summer to the popular amusement park. Since then, it’s become a tradition.
“We started out with one van and then the last time we went to Cedar Point, we had 15, 56-passenger Indian Trails buses,” Williams said. “It’s very expensive to go to Cedar Point, but it’s really rewarding to be able to take that many kids and their families up there and give them T-shirts, feed them and give them free drinks. So that’s rewarding to do.”
As the foundation’s programs continue to grow, Williams said the work performed by volunteers remains critical.
“When it comes to our volunteers, people are just waiting to help out,” Williams said. “We do all these different activities throughout the year that people want to come be part of.”
Each April, Williams also sponsors the Second Chance Basketball Game for Detroit-based high school seniors who did not receive college scholarships. Through the foundation’s platform, the student-athletes can interact with coaches and scouts from across the country.
“Letting kids know they can be part of something and have relationships helps,” Williams said. “Once I can teach these kids how important relationships are, I think they can grow and learn.”
Unfortunately, many of the organization’s in-person relationship-building experiences were suspended or altered over the past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But Williams’ passion to serve has remained, and the foundation has adjusted.
“We did virtual activities for about a year,” Williams said. “Once the pandemic calmed down a bit, we limited it to 10 kids or so to a classroom. We also ran programs on Saturdays so we could get different people in and out.”
Williams is excited for a full return to normalcy so his organization can get back to what it does best: helping others.
“If we can get back to more in-person, I can feel the energy,” Williams said. “It’s different doing virtual stuff. There are certainly different challenges that you go through when you’re doing that.”
And while Williams is proud of the recognition his organization has received since its inception, he continues to find value in even the smallest of moments.
“I was hitting golf balls earlier last summer, and a young kid we had from a few years ago came up to me and said, ‘Thank you, Mr. Williams. I wanted to thank you for everything, and the opportunity,’” Williams said. “The rewards like that are a blessing.”