Yvonne Harvey Williams was born to a 13-year-old mother.
She grew up in a drug-infested environment and was homeless by 13.
Yet, there she stood Monday as keynote speaker for the 9th Annual Rosa Parks Women of Courage Breakfast, sharing lessons that she learned along the way.
"You might start off maybe on social services but that’s not your ultimate end, that’s just your jumpstart to get to where you want," said the New Jersey native, now an entrepreneur, author and nationally-renowned motivational speaker. "That’s why we can’t discredit people who might be walking around serving us breakfast this morning, because you don’t understand where they’re going to be tomorrow."
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The breakfast, held at the Columbus Convention and Trade Center, was hosted by SISTERS Inc, an organization that was incorporated in 2005 as the charity outreach arm of the Gamma Tau Omega Chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. About 1,100 people showed up for the 7 a.m. event, which is held annually to provide scholarships for college students.
In addition to Williams’ keynote address, the audience heard greetings from Mayor Teresa Tomlinson and Phenix City Mayor Eddie Lowe. The sorority honored three women for their service to the community. The award recipients were: Evangelist Johanne Harris, executive director of the House of Mercy; Pastor Peggy Banks Myles, of Ship of Zion Ministries, and Susan Smith, chair of the Easter Seals West Georgia board of directors.
Williams is currently a resident of Hamilton, Ga. She worked as a training and recruiting manager for a sales and circulation firm for the "New York Times" and has been a motivational speaker for more than 20 years. She is the author of five books and the CEO and founder of Speak2Inspire. For nine consecutive years, she has been the number 1 speaker in the area of encouraging, empowering youth and young adults for one of the largest speaking bureaus in the United States, according to her bio.
In her speech, Williams talked about her mixed heritage. She said her mother was Irish, English and Dutch and her father was Cherokee, Indian and Black. She called herself "gumbo" and described the identity crisis she experienced because of her background.
"Most people often define anybody that they come in contact with by the complexion of their skin, the length of their hair, what they wear, where they come from, and their socioeconomic background," she said.
She said some black people assumed she was more privileged because she had mixed features.
"Pain doesn’t care what color you are," she said. "Pain is the even playing field for everybody in this room, and this little light-skin girl has the same depression as a brown-skin girl. This little light-skin girl goes through the same suicidal thoughts and low-self esteem and all of the insecurities that all the other women in this room go through.
"In my neighborhood, in my area where I lived, I never saw anybody go to college," she said. "I did see people go to work. Most of the people that I grew up with, we were all pretty much damaged."
Williams said it took people investing in her future to turn her life around, and now she has a legacy that she can pass on to her children. She said she has learned many lessons from her oldest son, who has persevered despite having a learning disability.
"My son is a reference point that was created because I made a decision in my life to get my mind right," she said. "I started out messed up, drinking every day, smoking, trying to self-medicate, popping pills... And then here I am 24 years later. I don’t drink. I don’t curse. I don’t do drugs. I have been absolutely free of all that negativity for over 20 years.
"Here’s my son, who’s 24 now," she continued. "He’s the first male in our family who made it to 24 without being somebody’s baby daddy and without a police record. He’s trying to become a police officer."
Williams encouraged the audience to look beyond where children are today and to see their potential.
"When you walk out of here today, I need you to do one thing for me," she told the crowd. "Be sensitive, and be receptive to the needs of someone else. Don’t be so self-absorbed that you are focusing on you, you, you and your family."