Helping you live your best life

Skip main navigation
Group Created with Sketch.

Need help

What can we help you find?

Related Search Terms

Related Search Results


Ram Pantry food drive has special resonance for VCU College of Health Professions graduate student

Food insecurity evolves from struggle to service for David-Jamel Williams, whose impressive collections mark the depth of his commitment.

College aged boy and his mother in a dorm David-Jamel Williams with his mother during his sophomore year in college. (Contributed photo)

By Malorie Burkett

David-Jamel Williams remembers when his younger cousins and other family would visit during his teen years. On one evening, his mother made them dinner – and she pretended to eat.

After everyone had gone to bed, Williams snuck out of his room and into the kitchen. His mother was putting back her meal, which she discreetly had hidden, so that food would be available for everyone the following day.

“It’s a very personal struggle I’m familiar with,” Williams said of food insecurity. “Those kinds of memories stick with you. I never brought it up to her, but I recognized it’s a very real deal.”

Graduate student in a vest and orange tie sitting for a headshot

David-Jamel Williams, a master’s student in patient counseling, said his experiences with food insecurity has framed his academic and life journeys. (Contributed photo)

Williams is now a master’s student in patient counseling at Virginia Commonwealth University’s College of Health Professions, and those memories have framed his academic and life journeys. In this year’s annual food drive to benefit Ram Pantry, Williams himself facilitated donations totaling 624 pounds – a large part of the 3,185 pounds that CHP collected.

“This wasn’t something I was initially going to share,” he said of his experience, noting a shame that often accompanies food insecurity. But he has come to view it as inspirational and a motivation to help others.

Born in New Jersey, Williams moved to Virginia when he was 10. Though not destitute, he and his mother didn’t have much privilege. He attended Old Dominion University in Norfolk and faced challenges paying his way through school. To earn money for rent and groceries, he worked throughout the night driving cabs, and during the day, he might sleep on the bus ride to or from the cab station. At one point, he received food stamps.

Williams recalls one morning, after a night of driving, feeling extremely hungry as he walked by a hotel near campus and decided to step inside. He introduced himself to the front desk clerk, explained that he had no money and asked if he could have something to eat from the hotel breakfast. She kindly obliged.

“I was literally so hungry that I was asking the hotel if I could have some of the food they weren’t going to use,” Williams said. “There were literally other times where I would probably eat the food that other people would throw away.”

Even worse, in his mind, was that he was homeless when he graduated from ODU.

“I was ashamed of it, to be honest with you,” Williams said, noting that even his family didn’t know. “I didn’t want to tell people. I had frat brothers and some of them were struggling in their own rights. But many of them didn’t know, so when you’re going through it, you kind of live in a secret shame.”

Yet during college, an unrelated event prompted Williams to reconnect with his faith, and “my whole life ambitions became different,” he said. “I became somebody who wanted to try to live for helping others. When ministry became real for me, I wanted to find more practical, more applicable ways to be about that work, so ministry and eventually chaplaincy became an awesome opportunity.”

After seminary and his initial experiences with clinical pastoral education, Williams decided to apply to the VCU patient counseling program – its national reputation appealed to him, and he began his studies in this recent fall semester. That is also when the Rev. Marilyn Barnes, chair of Department of Patient Counseling, was assembling students, faculty and staff to be part of a video celebrating the department’s leading role in the College of Health Profession’s 2022 food drive for Ram Pantry.

Young boy standing in home smiling

David-Jamel Williams lived in East Orange, New Jersey, when he was young. (Contributed photo)

The video participation resonated with Williams, who decided to play a leading role for this year’s drive. Established in 2021 by Beth Williamson-Ayers and Cameron Parkins, the food drive has become a tradition and even a competition among CHP departments.

Williams said he drew inspiration from Barnes’ leadership – she notes that “food security is a right and not a privilege” – and from her commitment to expanding Ram Pantry’s reach.

“When you have someone so giving of themselves, giving of their time, and setting the pace by example, it’s hard not to want to follow in those footsteps,” Williams said. “The generosity that you give to the world can be a blessing and a ripple effect in ways we can never foresee, and I would try to encourage others to do as much good as they could.”

Williams rallied friends and others to donate, and the 624 pounds he helped collect was 100 more than his entire department’s total in 2022 and nearly half of its 1,384-pound total this year. He would come to the department building early to drop off donations, and when Brenda Brown, administrator of education programs, engaged him about his commitment, she helped convince him to share his story.

In helping others, Williams is reminded of the gratitude he feels for the generosity that has been directed toward him in his life.

“You never know how many people are truly living in borderline destitution but who are putting on a front so they don’t have to look like what they’re going through, or feel any more or less than what they already do,” Williams said. “Sometimes just knowing you’re not alone in your struggle or your pain is enough to keep you going for more. I was blessed. I was lucky. I got through that place.”