A driving force
Sam Williams positions his wheelchair front and center in front of his new wheelchair accessible van made possible by generous donations from the Elmhurst community, including one anonymous donation for $30,000. Organizers of the fundraiser surrounding Williams include (from left): Dawn Wheatland, Kristin Morrow, Mindi Honken and Jen Knuth. Not pictured: Barb Rosenberg.

 

By Patti Pagni

For The Elmhurst Independent

Sam Williams was “stuck. “ Barbara Rosenberg sprung into action. And, the Elmhurst community followed.

Williams, 35, who has cerebral palsy, has accomplished more than many able-bodied adults. He earned his Master of Public Health degree, is a peer-mentor leader for Easter Seals, and is the head coach of Synergy Boccia team, an adapted bocce ball league for those with physical disabilities. Rosenberg has known Williams since he was in kindergarten, as she was his teaching aide and the two developed a special bond.

A 17-year-old handicap-equipped van the Elmhurst resident rode in to accommodate his busy schedule finally conked out this year, and Williams was forced to turn to public transportation. Mixing that with all kinds of weather conditions and his electric wheelchair often added hours to his commute. Rosenberg knew she had to help.

“Sam was riding along on his [electric wheelchair] on the Prairie Path back and forth and using public transportation,” Rosenberg said. “He even rode all the way to Glen Ellyn just so he could get to church.”

 

GoFundMe starts the ball rolling

Rosenberg, known throughout Elmhurst as a founder of Special Kids Day along with her husband Rich, hoped to start a GoFundMe page to raise funds to go towards a new accessible van for Sam.

“I thought the van was the best gift I could think of that Sam needed,” she said. Rosenberg titled her page: “Sam Williams is stuck.”

The page not only helped raise money, but also raised awareness of Sam’s accomplishments and his struggles to keep achieving and helping others.

Donations were piling in but not enough to satisfy the cost of a new van. Not to be deterred, Rosenberg wrote a letter to local Elmhurst charity ‘No Frills.’ No Frills chooses a new beneficiary every year and over the course of seven years, the organization, run by Elmhurst residents Kristin Morrow and Dawn Wheatland, has raised more than $200,000 for those in need.

Although Williams was not the chosen recipient, the No Frills founders knew they had to help. That’s where Mindi Honken, a “friend of No Frills,” jumped in.

“I actually spotted Sam around town trying to get around…I knew we needed to do something,” said Honken. “I thought of Jen Knuth, the owner of Fitt-Rx [Elmhurst fitness gym] and together, we kind of started a side hustle that turned into a non-traditional giving tree. I put together some ornaments and displayed the tree inside Fitt-Rx.”

Honken put pictures of Williams’ two children, Patrick, 10, and Caroline, 9, on the ornament along with the GoFundMe page information.

“I thought we’d raise a few thousand dollars,” she said.

 

A silent benefactor steps up

What no one counted on? A man attending classes at Fitt-Rx realized he knew Williams and his story. In the spirit of holiday giving, the man and his family anonymously donated $30,000 toward the Sam’s cause.

Combined with the GoFundMe page and the Giving Tree, the generous anonymous donation was just the push Rosenberg’s effort needed to raise nearly $50,000 to purchase the specially adapted van.

“It’s like a Cadillac,” said Williams, who uses a communication device with eye recognition. “It is mind-boggling and an answered prayer. I could have never expected this much support, and I am very, very grateful.

Williams’ physical disabilities have presented many obstacles over the years, but none too great that prevented him from competing in the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece.

“The first time I met Sam, I just looked at what he has accomplished and the struggles he has overcome, and I started to cry because he is so amazing,” said Honken. “This is super exciting. I’m still speechless.”

Williams’ mom, Sammie, also cannot believe what the community has given to her son.

“I can’t believe it,” she said. “It’s not the path I thought we were on. Nothing like this has touched my life this closely. Witnessing this is incredible.”

 

The big day, the big van arrives

On a recent sunny winter day, Honken, Knuth and the No Frills team picked up the new van from Mobility Works in Villa Park, and loaded themselves and a giant, colorful balloon bouquet into the new ride. Beeping the horn as they drove down the street, the van reveal was on. Williams, his mom, and the Rosenbergs, along with two local television news crews, were eagerly awaiting the arrival in the driveway.

After navigating his way up the brand new van’s ramp and settling himself inside, Williams was all smiles.

“The cool thing is the impact this will allow me to have,” he said. “It will allow me to get to work, do stuff with my kids and participate in my community.”

 

 

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