BONAIRE -- Sherice Williams lives in a stately brick home in an upscale subdivision, and she may be the only resident there who is a former welfare mom.
She had a child when she was 14 and another when she was 17. She barely knew either of her parents, who were in prison during most of her growing-up years.
She didn’t know her father or his side of the family until she was grown. But on her mother’s side, as far back as she knew, life revolved around welfare, prison and drug abuse.
When she and her fraternal twin sister were children, they were shuffled among family members, but not because anyone really wanted them.
“They wanted to raise us because a welfare check came with it,” she said.
Williams had little reason to be hopeful for her future. Her grandmother told her she would turn out just like her mother, a PCP addict. But somehow, Williams was optimistic.
“I knew I wanted to be something great,” said Williams, now 46. “I knew I wanted to be something different. I just didn’t know what it was going to be.”
She credits her great-aunt with helping her turn her life around. She thinks about her on Thanksgiving, as well as Nelson Williams, her husband of eight years.
“I’m thankful for having my aunt in my life and for her helping me become the woman I am today,” she said. “I’m thankful for not letting being a teen mother discourage me from accomplishing things in life.”
Williams spent most of her childhood in California, until her grandmother moved to Orange, Texas, where Williams gave birth. Her grandmother kicked her out of the house but kept the baby, which meant a monthly check from the federal government.
At 15, Williams went before a magistrate judge to reclaim her child. As it turned out, that court appearance was a turning point in her life.
“He said ‘I’ve never done this in my 25 years of sitting on the bench, but there is just something in you that I believe you have potential,’” she recalled. “He made some phone calls and gave me some cards. Three police officers escorted me to my grandmother’s house and gave me my daughter.”
The judge effectively declared her independent, which allowed her to live in public housing. She supported herself and her child with welfare and a job at Burger King. Williams said she was determined that her daughter would have a different life.
TWO POSSIBLE PATHS
When Williams was 17, she went back to California to live with her great-aunt, whom she counted as the lone positive influence in her family. Williams earned a GED after just three weeks of studying, even though she hadn’t been to school since she gave birth.
One night a few years later, she passed a bus station while walking to the grocery store and saw a unkempt woman with five children in tow.
“I just thought, ‘that is not what I want to become,’” she said.
On her way back from the store, she saw another woman whose life was much different than the woman at the bus station.
“She was driving a Jaguar. She was so beautiful and so sharp, the way she was dressed in a suit, and I said ‘That’s the woman I want to be,’” Williams remembered. “That night when I was at home, I heard on the radio they were taking applications to be a deputy sheriff.”
She went through six months at the police academy in hopes of joining the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department. She made good grades, but she was told she lacked the maturity to be a deputy. The county paid for her to go to the academy the first time around but wouldn’t pay again.
So Williams paid out of her own pocket.
IN THE ARMY NOW
She successfully went through the academy and became a deputy. Two years later, she joined the Army.
Her official job was a cook, but she never did any cooking. She took on a variety of tasks, basically anything that would give her a challenge. She rose to the rank of sergeant first class, earned a bachelor’s degree and then a masters.
After getting her bachelor’s, she decided to become a commissioned officer and was accepted. She had to get waivers because she was older and had served longer than the limits allowed for that transition.
In 2004, she deployed to Iraq where she commanded 10-mile-long convoys that brought supplies from Turkey to Mosul, Iraq. Twice her convoy struck bombs, including one that hit the truck directly behind hers, but she never lost anyone in her time there.
In October she retired as a captain just shy of 23 years of service. Her husband is also an Army retiree and they settled in Houston County. When Williams was stationed at Fort Hunter, near Savannah, and her husband at Fort Stewart, near Hinesville, they would drive through Houston County while headed to Alabama, her husband’s home state.
Based on the occasional drive through Houston County and some research on home prices, Nelson Williams decided that’s where he wanted to settle in retirement, so they bought a home in Bonaire.
The Houston County Commission invites veterans to meetings to lead the Pledge of Allegiance, which Williams did last week. She was invited after a county commission staff member learned she was a recent Army retiree.
But commissioners didn’t know her story until she told it briefly at one of their recent meetings. Commission Chairman Tommy Stalnaker said afterward that veterans have told many good life stories, but hers is one of the best he’s heard.
“That’s the real summary of the American dream,” he said. “You can pretty do what want you want to if you set your mind to it.”
Williams’ children are both grown and have done well, but that’s not the only positive change in her family. Her mother, father and grandmother have all turned their lives around, and she maintains a relationship with all of them. Williams’ sister went down a different path in life and was incarcerated several times, but she also has changed course and now works as a supervisor in a good job.
As she celebrates Thanksgiving this year, Williams said she remains thankful for the magistrate judge who helped her. She doesn’t remember his name but hopes to look him up some day and let him know how she turned out.
Her great-aunt, Theresa Mitchell, said she believed Williams was going to make something of herself, even though she already had two children when Williams came to live with her at 17.
“Having a child as a teenager isn’t the worst thing you can do,” Mitchell said. “She didn’t do drugs. She was a leader. I’m very proud of what she has become.”
After a hard childhood and a career in the Army, Williams said she is content in her retirement and plans to write a book about her life.
If she were speaking to young people in similar circumstances today, Williams said she would tell them the same thing her great-aunt told her.
“I would tell them just because you are young and have a child to not let that cripple you,” she said. “There are so many opportunities that you can take advantage of. You don’t have to follow the same footsteps of family members. Surround yourself around positive people. Find a mentor and someone they respect and value, and ask for help on how they can achieve their goals.”