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William Alexander Finds Joy in Helping Others

October 5, 2016   |   Alliance for Aging Research Team   |   Healthy Aging
Bulletin board with text "give back."

We all have that moment when we realize what we are meant to do in life, our calling.

For William Alexander, it was in the mid-1960s, some 3,000 miles away from his hometown of Washington, D.C. He was a somewhat shell-shocked 18-year-old about to start out as a college student at Alan Hancock College in Santa Maria, California.

“I had culture shock,” William, who is now 71, recalls.

The world of California was quite different from the close-knit northwest Washington, D.C. neighborhood he had grown up in.

But it didn’t take long for William to find another community in California. Always a social person, William soon fit right in with the West Coast vibe, making friends, taking classes, and running on the track team.

He also came to the realization about what his time in California was all about: “I had been given this opportunity to go away to school, so what was I going to do with this opportunity? I discovered that my California experience was all about preparing me for what I was meant to do: to give back to my community.”

And that’s exactly what happened. After four-and-half years in California, William came back home to Washington, D.C.

In his professional career, he worked in youth corrections. Although not always the easiest of professions, William was determined to make a positive influence on these young men. Until his retirement at 57, he did just that. He even acquired an affectionate nickname: Shorty Al.

“One of the high points of my life to this day is when I’m on the subway or at the mall, and one of the former residents will see me and say, ‘Shorty Al, how are you doing?’ It is good to know I had a positive influence on them,” he says.

Throughout his life, William also devoted time to working with kids and older adults on a volunteer basis. He tutored kids at a community center. He also participated in a local program that provided medical services to older adults.

When William retired in 2001, he began to adjust to a life without a full-time job. One thing was quickly apparent: He wasn’t a homebody.

“I got tired of staying home. I needed something to do. I’m not a stay at home and watch a soap opera person,” he says.

So naturally, his something to do continued to be what he’s always done: giving back to the community.

Today, he’s making a difference in the lives of kids through the Foster Grandparents program in Washington, D.C., which trains older adults “with caring spirits to provide critical mentoring and support to District children in a variety of local settings.” He first joined the program in 2012 after learning about it through a relative. (A side note about William: If you talk with him long enough, you’ll quickly discover he’s a stranger to very few people in the D.C. area.)

As a Foster Grandparent, he provides mentoring to elementary students at the Roots Public Charter School.

“This is an important time in their life. If they don’t get the basics, they won’t be able to survive. You have to get the core skills,” he notes. “I enjoy seeing their eyes light up when they figure something out.”

Although it’s been a long time since his first epiphany moment in California, William still hasn’t forgotten what he’s devoted his life to doing.

“I have undying love for people. When I came back from California, I brought my skills back to my community. It isn’t just about me, it’s about the community and how I can help.”

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