A student’s personal experience with food insecurity inspires him to help others
For the third consecutive year, the VCU College of Health Professions has exceeded its own expectations with their annual food drive to benefit the VCU Ram Pantry. The VCU College of Health Professions collected a total of 3,185 pounds of food this year.
Established in 2021 by Beth Williamson Ayers and Cameron Parkins, the food drive has become a tradition and competitive event among CHP departments. In its inaugural year, the Department of Health Administration took first place for the highest weight in food donations, then in 2022, Patient Counseling took top honors. This year, what one CHP student describes as his “secret shame,” is what inspired him the most to help others.
David-Jamel Williams is a Master’s student in VCU’s Department of Patient Counseling.
The young Williams while living in East Orange, NJ
David-Jamel Williams, a Master’s student in Patient Counseling, was born in New Jersey, and he moved to Virginia when he was 10 years old. Growing up in a single-parent home with his mother, Williams says while they were not destitute by any means, they did not have much privilege. He recalls moments during middle and high school when his cousins and family visited, and his mother would fix them dinner. As the oldest cousin, Williams usually stayed up to watch TV, or help his mom around the house. There was one night in particular where Williams says his mother discreetly pretended to eat, but did not.
After everyone had gone to bed, Williams snuck out of his room and into the kitchen, to find his mother putting back the food which she pretended to eat, in order to have food available for everyone the following day.
“This wasn't something I was initially going to share, but it's a very personal struggle I'm familiar with,” said Williams. “Those kinds of memories stick with you. I never brought it up to her [mom], but I recognized it’s a very real deal.”
Williams went on to attend college in Norfolk, where he also experienced challenges while trying to pay his way through school. Money was extremely tight, so he worked throughout the night driving cabs. During the day, Williams would either sleep on the bus ride to or from the cab station, then return to driving cabs at night to earn money for rent and groceries. At one point, he received food stamps.
One morning after a night of driving, Williams found himself incredibly famished. As he was walking past a hotel near the Old Dominion University Campus, where he was a student, he decided to step inside. He recalls approaching the front desk and telling the employee he was a student. He explained that he had no money, and did not mean to bother her, but had to ask if he could have something to eat from the hotel breakfast. The employee kindly invited Williams to help himself to a meal, and said if she was ever working at the front desk, he could get food whenever he wanted.
“I was literally so hungry that I was asking the hotel if I could have some of the food they weren't going to use,” he said. “There were literally other times where I would probably eat the food that other people would throw away.”
According to Williams, the most detrimental part of his collegiate career even his own family was unaware of, is that he was homeless when he graduated from ODU.
“I was ashamed of it, to be honest with you,” he said. “I didn't want to tell people. I had frat brothers and some of them were struggling in their own rights; but many of them didn’t know, so when you're going through it, you kind of live in a secret shame.”
Williams says he knew religion when he was younger, but did not care for it. It was not until he was in college when he was going through an unrelated event which he refers to as one of his lowest emotional and social experiences of his life, that he says God became real for him.
“I often tell people, I don't claim to know God's mind, but I do claim to know God's heart or at least know something about it; because it’s with His heart He touched mine,” said Williams. “After that experience, my whole life ambitions became different. I didn't want to be the person who sought to exploit people for my own personal gratification. I became somebody who wanted to try to live for helping of others. When ministry became real for me, I wanted to find more practical, more applicable ways to be about that work, so ministry and eventually chaplaincy became an awesome opportunity.”
It was after seminary and his initial experiences with clinical pastoral education that Williams decided to apply for the VCU Patient Counseling program. Being familiar with the program’s reputation as one of the best in the country, he believed he would be able to advance his vocation at VCU. After Williams was accepted, he began his first semester in Fall 2023.
Being newer to the program, Williams was not previously aware of the Ram Pantry. One day he was approached by Rev. Marilyn Barnes, chair of Patient Counseling, as she was rallying faculty, staff, and students to take part in a video as winners of the 2022 CHP food drive. Barnes indicated that Williams is part of their team, and he should be recognized along with everyone. Being part of the food drive recognition video resonated with Williams, partly because of his personal experiences. It was also at that point when Williams realized another food drive would be taking place at the College.
Williams saw this as an opportunity for a personal challenge – one in which to try and surpass what the department collected the previous year. Throughout the food drive, he rallied friends and others to help him, and he was able to bring in a generous amount of food totaling 624 pounds. This was 100 pounds more than the department collected the previous year. Williams said he would come to the building extra early to drop off the donations, leaving other members of the department to wonder where the donations were coming from. One day, he was spotted by Brenda Brown, administrator of education programs for the department. Brown questioned Williams as to why he felt so inclined to help to such a degree, and after sharing his story, Brown convinced him to share it with others.
When asked about the leadership of Rev. Barnes, Williams says her focus above all else was making sure as many students as possible could benefit from the Ram Pantry.
“When you have someone so giving of themselves, giving of their time, and setting the pace by example, it’s hard not to want to follow in those footsteps,” he said. “The generosity that you give to the world can be a blessing and a ripple effect in ways we can never foresee, and I would try to encourage others to do as much good as they could.”
As for the results of the 2023 food drive, the Department of Patient Counseling learned they took first place honors again by collecting a total of 1,384 pounds of food. Williams says he is dedicated to paying it forward in hopes of helping others, and he is grateful for the generosity toward him in his life.
“I'm really grateful that our entire college stepped up our effort this year. While it's fun to be competitive, it's really great that many students will benefit from the food donation,” said Barnes. “I know I speak for the entire Patient Counseling and Spiritual Care Department when I say ‘food security is a right and not a privilege and anything we can do to support that right, we are all in.’”
To learn more about the VCU Ram Pantry, visit the Ram Pantry website.
“You never know, how many people are truly living in borderline destitution, but who are putting on a front so they don't have to look like what they're going through, or feel any more or less than what they already do,” said Williams. “Sometimes just knowing you're not alone in your struggle or your pain is enough to keep you going for more. I was blessed. I was lucky. I got through that place, and I made it through undergrad almost entirely on my own, with just the blessings of family and friends.”
By Malorie Burkett
VCU College of Health Professions
Dec 11, 2023