“If you’ve been blessed and have the capacity to help others, then that’s what you should do,” says Navarra Williams, President and CEO of SAMMinistries.
It’s a philosophy that has guided his life for more than a decade now. Navarra used to run Paragon Cable, now part of Time Warner, from the early 90’s into the 2000’s in San Antonio. When he left the private sector, he had to search for new inspiration.
A friend suggested he read Halftime: Moving from Success to Significance. It was only when he picked up the book that he realized it was written by another old friend, Bob Buford. They had sat on the Texas Cable Association together. Navarra was listening.
The book spoke to him with a clear message in this transitional stage in his life. “If you’ve been blessed in the first part of your life,” explains Navarra, “take the last half or third, or whatever it may be, and do something for others.” He had worked with nonprofits before, most notably the Carver Community Cultural Center on the Eastside, whose educational elements held personal significance to him.
“It was my education that gave me the opportunity to have the kind of jobs that I’ve had,” he says. Wanting to pass on those educational opportunities, he began his search. When he came across SAMMinistries, its former CEO had retired just a few months prior after 17 years of service. Navarra remembered volunteering at the SAMMinistries shelter in the past with his cable company team.
He learned that SAMMinistries had other components as well, including its own Transitional Learning and Living Center, which houses homeless families and offers them educational and workforce opportunities. “I wanted to find something that had some personal meaning to me,” he says, “And for me, it was the education piece at the TLLC.”
Samministries President and CEO Navarra Williams speaks at the Homeless Persons' Memorial at Milam Park downtown San Antonio. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio
Navarra has now been President and CEO of SAMMinistries for 10 years. “Our mission is to help the homeless, and those at risk of becoming homeless, attain self-sufficiency,” he explains. Just as he faced a turning point in his life to dedicate himself to something new, one of the lives SAMMinistries has touched is about to do the same. “We’re about to put one of our former clients on the board of directors.”
“It’s typically held on the 21st of December because it’s the Solstice, which is the longest night,” he explains. The event puts a spotlight on the fact that some people die as a result of homelessness. The name of each homeless person that has passed away over the past year is read aloud. A candle is lit in their honor, and a bell is rung.
“The first time I did it, I learned an infant had passed away. That hit me very hard,” says Navarra. This year, the youngest person to be remembered was days old when they passed. The oldest was 79. 65 names were read, three less than last year. “It’s a recognition of the fact that some people lose their lives just because their homeless,” he says.
One of the most popular remembrances of the evening comes in the form of small rocks. Each is inscribed with the name of a homeless person that has passed away. People are encouraged to take a rock with them when they leave. Some attendees are experiencing homelessness themselves, and may know some of the people who have passed. Other attendees may be strangers, who take a rock as a simple reminder. “They can keep that rock as a remembrance of that person and as a memory of the event,” Navarra explains.
Attendees of the Homeless Persons’ Memorial in Milam Park sign rocks in remembrance of the homeless in San Antonio, TX. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio
He himself has kept several rocks over the years, usually ones that have been left behind. “I’ll take the rock and if I can find out anything about that person, then I try to do that; try to remember that.”
Navarra has seen the event grow over the years: “There are more organizations that are helping, getting involved.” Haven For Hope, First Presbyterian, Family Service Association, and Goodwill Industries are just some that contribute to the memorial.
The Homeless Persons’ Memorial is a profound moment of community during the holiday season and a statement that every life should be remembered. “We should come together to appreciate the life we have and honor the memory of those that have passed,” Navarra emphasizes.
Samministries President and CEO Navarra Williams stands for a portrait inside their newly renovated library at the Transitional Learning Center. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio
To learn more about SAMMinistries and to get involved with events and programs like this one, visit www.samm.org