When Adrian Williams sees a need, she fills it.
“My day starts at five a.m.,” she said. “I get up, catch a bus, and by seven I’m in line at the food bank to shop for our senior and family food pantry,” said Williams.
As founder of The Village Project, Williams has been serving youth and seniors in the Fillmore and Western Addition with enrichment programs, special events and groceries since 2006. Lately, the pandemic has put keeping people fed at the top of her list.
“I knew there were seniors who would be shut in,” she said of the residents at Fellowship Manor and Rosa Parks Senior Center. They are among the four centers she serves with an estimated 2,100 bags of groceries each month.
It’s a Herculean task for the petite but mighty Williams, who arrives by nine at her home base of operations, St. Cyprian’s on Turk Street, where she’s assisted by her team in unloading, unpacking, sorting and bagging the groceries for delivery by noon. The aim is to complete the tasks, then fan out with the bags so Williams can return to the food bank for a second run, filling her small vehicle. She stores her car overnight nearby, just so she can do it all over again the next day.
“I’m in awe of her energy,” said Henry Randolph, senior shop floor manager at the SF-Marin Food Bank, which is now serving twice as many households as it was pre-pandemic.
“I’ve seen her lift 50 pound sacks of potatoes and lift them on to her cart and she does that kind of lifting every day. It’s unbelievable,” he said. “She’s a tiny lady, probably not even 100 pounds, but she has a tremendously big heart.”
Williams is committed to nutrition. “She really cares about the seniors,” said Randolph, noting her focus on fresh fruits, vegetables and sources of protein.
“The quality of the food is exceptional,” said Williams of the food bank. “The butter, the eggs, the natural chicken breasts…It feels so good to be able to give quality food right now.”
Originally from Louisiana, Williams moved here by way of Chicago.
“I was offered 17 scholarships and chose Northwestern University because I had relatives in Chicago and had never been away from home,” she said.
After majoring in psychology, it was corporate sales that brought her to California, first with American Can Company, and then Parke-Davis, which moved her to San Francisco. She returned to Chicago for a spell to raise her child and worked as an interior designer before coming back to the Bay Area.
“It was too cold there, and in ’96 I came back,” she said. She settled into a job at Oakland’s Xerox Corporation until her attention turned to the Fillmore.
“My grand baby was living in San Francisco and I was bringing her to school,” said Williams. She remembered a surge of violence that gripped the neighborhood, forcing parents to keep their kids indoors. “I couldn’t understand what was happening,” she said.
“The kids were on lockdown. Then one day I saw dogs and babies and Frisbee being played in a nearby park and it dawned on me.”
Williams had found her purpose in the district. She began organizing field trips once a week.
“I literally knocked on the doors of these parents and said, ‘Let me have your child and I’ll bring them home safely,’” she said. “Some of these kids had never ridden a BART train. They were so excited.”
She branched out and arranged for transportation passes, making trips to Bay Area destinations like the aviation museum.
Neighbors wondered why Williams, a non-local, would take such an interest in the residents, why she was doing what she was doing, for no gain or profit.
“I was an enigma,” she said. To prove she was serious, she moved in with her daughter at Pitts Plaza. No longer would she spend nights wondering what the kids would do in summer months, without school, without the free lunch program and school activities. She’d be there for them.
“My supervisor at Xerox was so great when I said I needed to take a leave of absence,” said Williams. “He held my desk for two years.”
Williams never went back to the corporate world, trading in that life for one of on-the-ground community work.
“When I started, I had no idea about nonprofits and grants,” she said, but she knew people needed services. If she couldn’t provide them herself, she would guide folks through the bureaucracies.
“I turn people on to resources,” she said.
The Village Project — named after the idea, often attributed to an African proverb, that everyone in a community participates in the raising of a child — now provides piano music and art lessons after school to about 30 students (virtually for now) and supplies about 130 grocery bags a day to food insecure seniors and families. Williams and her community network also produce seasonal special events, like The Fillmore’s Mardi Gras celebration and the upcoming citywide seven-day observance of Kwanzaa, which is also going virtual, at the end of this month.
“This is our 15th season,” said Williams of the annual Kwanzaa programs that take place at community and senior centers citywide.
“Last year there were 18 events, sometimes two or three a day,” she said. This year, community centers in Oakland and corporate clients had signed on for presentations on Nguzo Saba, the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa. “Then here comes COVID,” she said, and adaptations were made.
Musical performances, some of them pre-taped for streaming, are always part of the annual gathering, but the nightly tradition of honoring ancestors and lighting candles in remembrance carries some heavy weight in this pandemic year that has disproportionately impacted African Americans and communities of color.
Williams has of course ensured there will be traditional holiday feasting with catered meals to be made available for curbside pick-up, though it’s unlikely she’ll have much time to kick back and enjoy the fruits of her labor.
“Sometimes I think I’m so tired, I’m losing my mind,” she said. Yet nothing can stand in the way of her shopping, delivering, and showing up for the students after school.
“Being able to give has been a lifesaver,” she said.
When: 6 p.m. Dec. 26-Jan.1
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.