He’s got a close eye on hundreds of Rochester children in hopes they don’t turn into another ugly statistic. And he lives more than 2,500 miles away.
Roland Williams, an East High grad who grew up on Genesee Street, chased his football dreams after leaving the Flower City. That dream resulted in a successful stop at Syracuse, an eight-year NFL career and a Super Bowl ring.
He eventually settled in Los Angeles, but he never forgot about Rochester.
“I just got tired of hearing about the tragedies and pain that’s happening with our young people here (in Rochester),” Williams said. “The statistics are horrifying.”
Champion Academy was born. The multi-dimensional program mentors hundreds of Rochester’s youth. Williams said it currently serves more than 300 students in grades 6-12 in more than 50 schools across Rochester.
“It’s time for people who care about progress and who care about this region, to not turn their backs on some of the other darker, challenging sides of this community,” Williams said. “You have to stand up and fight.”
Foodlink has joined the fight through nutrition education.
The Finger Lakes Eat Smart New York program, a collaboration of Cornell Cooperative Extension and Foodlink, has introduced lessons into the Champion Academy program and teaches children the value of eating right.
“You can’t have a healthy mind without a healthy body. So I’m very grateful for Foodlink to partner with Champion Academy,” Williams said. “I believe in the power of teamwork. As an NFL guy I know that nothing great happens without teamwork and so for me, having Foodlink on the team is really a great asset.”
FLESNY Nutrition Educator Laura Held said one workshop that she directed resulted in an unexpected treat. After introducing some healthy snack options to the kids, Williams piggybacked off her lesson during the following session — his motivational speech. Held was thrilled that Williams reinforced her message in such an engaging way.
“Roland was truly inspirational to both (nutrition) educators, and they could see how rapt with attention the youth were,” she said. “The connection between the workshop and the speech will surely make an impact on these youth.”
Foodlink founder Tom Ferraro had a saying. “There is no ‘thinking outside the box.’ There is only living outside the box.”
Williams agrees and it’s woven into the mission of Champion Academy.
“It’s extreme mentoring — mentoring with a twist to help give them those tools to be successful,” he said. “Part of that means pushing them to get outside the box. Pushing them a little bit to try new things and helping them to become better people from the inside out.”