“Stop!” yelled 4-year-old Joshua Williams as he sat in the booster seat in the back of his mother’s car as they were on the way to church one sunny day in Miami Beach, Florida.
Joshua’s grandmother had just given him a $20 bill as a present, and he was busy imagining all the different ways he could spend his money. At that moment on the way to church, he knew exactly how he wanted to spend it.
A homeless man on the street was holding a sign reading “Help Me,” and little Joshua urged his mother to stop driving so that he could help the man. “It’s my money; I want to help him, Mom,” Joshua said, and promptly handed the man the $20 bill.
Barely a year after that incident, Joshua Williams became quite possibly the world’s youngest foundation president, leading Joshua’s Heart Foundation, which he named himself. Why the name? “Because I felt like I was putting my heart into my mission,” he says.
At the age of 5 when, for most of us, our biggest missions involve climbing ladders and trees, hopping forward on one foot, buttoning our own shirts, and lacing our own shoes, Joshua was already leading a band of volunteers who hand out food to the needy.
It wasn’t always easy, especially in the beginning as he was trying to enlist support for his plan to feed the hungry. He first asked for help from his aunt. “But she didn't do anything. So I fired her,” Joshua says. Eventually, he asked his mother, but sadly she was too busy to be of much help.
After prodding her daily for months, he finally made progress and together they began to give away food and other items to people in need. Around that time, Joshua thought that he should start a company that would feed the world’s hungry. One of his aunts rose to the challenge and pointed them in the direction of starting a nonprofit foundation. Soon afterward, Joshua’s Heart Foundation was born.
As I meet the philanthro-prodigy, now 12 and a veteran of his work, the first thing I notice is hair: It is gloriously big, very curly, and he rocks it. The hair renders him iconic — think Albert Einstein’s frizz, Elvis Presley’s pompadour, The Beatles’ mop tops and other coifs that have defined the greatest icons. In a way he already is one, at least in the state of Florida where he has received more than 40 awards for his humanitarian work.
His influence extends beyond his home state: In 2010, a flag was flown over the United States Capitol at the request of the Honorable Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, member of Congress, in honor of Joshua’s mission to end hunger; and having received the Presidential Volunteer Service Award, his profile can be found on the White House website, amid those of other champions of change at least four times his age.
These experiences have clearly given him a lot of confidence. I meet him one afternoon soon after he got home from Random Everglades School in Miami, and as I spend the first five minutes carefully explaining what I do and asking if he has any questions, he simply shrugs “No.”
He explains to me why he does what he does: “I believe that giving your time and money is happiness because through time you will see who you are helping and the impact you had. This leads to happiness. Everything that I do when I help people makes me happy. Every moment is inspirational. ‘Cause when you help others, it leads to happiness.” He laughs, throwing his head backward.
“If you’re lonely, you’re with a lot of people now, so you’re not lonely anymore. If you’re depressed, then you're now happy because you’re helping people and you know that you’re doing the right thing. So technically, helping people leads to the cure of a lot of things.”
He has an ambitious expansion plan: “I want my foundation to become a worldwide organization. I want to help more people and make people aware that hunger is not only in the United States, but worldwide. In the next five years, I see my foundation as national foundation, and then in the next 10, 15years, I see my foundation as an international organization. Two of the places that I really want to help are Africa and Asia.”
“Basically whenever I help people from my distributions, I have a good feeling in my heart. You know that you’re doing the right thing; you’re happy! It’s that simple.”
When I ask him how this has changed his life, he says, “I was 4½ when I started, so it wasn’t much of a difference that I could really tell, but I just know that it’s better. You see everything in a different way. I have been able to have more experiences and talk to people about different subjects. I am more aware of my surroundings and what is happening in the world. I speak to youths and adults alike about hunger, making a difference and giving back. I don’t think I would be traveling and speaking at such a young age,” says Joshua, who enjoys public speaking and attended his first global conference at the age of 9.
Once, a reporter asked him what the title of his book would be, if he were ever to write one. “What Is Your Purpose?” Joshua replied.
Being around him, I realize why he phrased his book title as a question. Joshua’s single-mindedness about his own reason for living challenges people to discover their own, and even in his baby voice, he is a sage when he gives advice: “Basically, just always go with it. Go do your passion and your mission in life.”
With his big brown eyes gazing at me through black-rimmed glasses, he says, “I believe that everyone has a purpose in life and that it is their choice to follow it. If you do so, it will be a great achievement. My purpose in life is to help those in need. If I didn’t do this I would have no purpose,” he says. And then he excuses himself, saying he needs to get back to his homework.
Joshua’s Heart Foundation has two primary goals: to “Stomp out World Hunger” and to “Break the Cycle of Poverty.” Joshua’s foundation hosts quarterly food distributions, quarterly healthy cooking demonstrations around South Florida, Weekly food distribution and provides food in backpacks for children on the weekends who otherwise would have no food. To date, 450,000 pounds of food has been given to people in need..
This article has been adapted from Jenny Santi's new book, The Giving Way To Happiness: Stories and Science Behind the Life-Changing Power of Giving
Photo Credit: Getty Images