by Allen Martin and Jennifer Mistrot
OAKLAND (KPIX 5) — Freddy Williams hits the streets of Oakland with the sunrise. It’s a city the 23-year-old recent graduate of the Oakland police academy serves with pride. But it’s also a career choice Williams says he knows will have its challenges.
“Unfortunately being a police officer you do have to take people to jail,” said Williams.
It’s a heartbreaking situation for the children of incarcerated individuals and one Williams understands all too well. His own father has been incarcerated for most of Williams’ life, so he says he relates to families of the people he will arrest. But Williams hopes he can also offer help to those families.
“I am the first person there so I can actually provide resources to the families,” he explained.
Williams is referring to his longtime work as a volunteer counselor at Project Avary, a non-profit founded in 1999 at the gates of San Quentin prison. The program provides the children of incarcerated parents with a ten year commitment of mentorship, summer camps and other self-esteem building activities like horseback riding. Project Avary’s Executive Director Zach Whelan says empowering the children of incarcerated parents is key to breaking the cycle of incarceration.
“There is shame. There is stigma,” explained Whelan. “We are working on that social, emotional development. And we are helping them heal some of that inner grief and inner trauma.”
It’s that consistency and commitment that drew Williams to Project Avary. While he has been a volunteer counselor for years, not that long ago he was attending the camp.
“I come back every year,” declared Williams. “I’ve come back year since I was a camper. I have not missed one year of summer camp because Avary has given everything to me as a kid.”
William’s been a “Project Avary Kid” since he was eight years old, the age at which the program reaches out to children in need. So far, the non-profit has served more than 1,400 kids, like 11-year-old camper Truelly Jones who sees Williams as his role model.
“It gives me the confidence to be like, okay, I want to do that so I can do what he did,” said Jones.
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Other campers like Elvin say they can relate to Freddy’s past challenges.
“Don’t do what your family does, don’t do the bad things they do,” explained Elvin about what Williams and others at Project Avary have taught him. “Grow-up like how you want to grow up. Don’t grow up in a bad way.”
Williams is excited about his future with the Oakland police department, and he credits Project Avary for his success.
“This program has helped shape me into the man I am today,” said Williams of Project Avary.
But those who know him say it’s the community that Willaims will serve who will benefit the most.
“He is going onto the streets. He is going to be meeting kids just like himself,” said Whelan. “He knows their story. He knows how to help heal them.”