Talk about a Christmas you can’t forget. 

Aubrey Williams was on a tight schedule in December 2015 as he headed to the West End School in Louisville for his 5-year-old son’s Christmas program. He was on the run to see his son, then head to the courthouse where one of the kids in the Right Turn juvenile diversion program had a court appearance. By then, he’d been helping kids in the community for 10-plus years.

As Williams parked and headed for the front door of the school, he glanced at a man who changed directions on the other side of the street and walked toward him.

“As he was walking past me, I heard a bang and felt something hit my arm and side,” Williams said. “I knew I was shot. I didn’t recognize him. I turned to run but fell. I looked over my shoulder to see if he would keep shooting, but he took off running.”

The bullet shattered a bone in his arm and pierced his left side.

That was Williams’ second close call with death.

Williams is the Jefferson County coordinator for Hope Collaborative, a nonprofit founded in 2011 to engage churches and meet needs in the community. Hope Collaborative offers mentoring programs in four public school districts as well as diversion workshops for youth with offenses in Jefferson, Oldham, Henry and Bullitt counties.

Williams does not look at his work at Hope Collaborative as a job.

“Helping kids is what we do,” he said. “I’ve often wondered how having a mentor might have changed my own life.”

Kids in the program can’t say Williams doesn’t understand their challenges. He does.

“These kids are like me,” Williams said. “They need someone to walk alongside them.”

Williams often tells his story to kids in the Hope Collaborative mentoring program, at public schools and at other organizations in the community.

He believes that shooting in 2015 was a mistake. His first shooting in 1996 was not.

At 18, Williams was on a one-way path to destruction, making thousands a week selling drugs, a gifted basketball player wasting his talent. Growing up in a good, church-going family did not insulate him from life on the streets.

“A guy owed me some money,” Williams said. “I put my hands on him pretty bad. It wasn’t about the money. It was about respect. I was so empty and depleted inside. I was 18, miserable, waking up every day with a dark cloud over my head. I had everything a young man could want, but I wasn’t happy.”

The man warned Williams he was going to kill him. Thirty minutes later, he showed up with a loaded gun, and the two men argued.

“I told him I was ready to die, and told him to pull the trigger,” Williams said. “I remember being so cold. They put me on life support at the hospital, and I lost a gallon and a half of blood. My heart stopped three times. The doctor pronounced me dead and headed down the hall to talk with my family. But my former pastor in the room continued to pray. When he felt my body move, he called to the medical team down the hall.”

“Come back,” he yelled. “God has a job for him to do.”

While unconscious, Williams saw scenes in his life pass like a movie.

“There was nothing good: drugs, fighting, violence. No Christmases or birthdays,” he said. “All I had were memories of my sin. I feel like it was a glimpse of hell.”

When Williams regained consciousness, his father, a prominent Louisville attorney who also pastored a church, said simply, “God saved your life.”

Williams hadn’t thought about God for years.

“My family believes what they ask God for,” he said. “I made up my mind in that hospital bed to change my life. I believed God was giving me another shot at life.”

Williams set out to change his trajectory. A few months later, he got his GED, began reading the Bible, attending Bible study and support groups. Getting custody of his 1-year-old daughter helped Williams look at life through a different lens. He started classes at Jefferson Community & Technical College and began writing for the school newspaper.

“Even then, I felt that my gold teeth and the past defined my potential,” Williams said. “I studied slavery, history, black investors, philosophers and inventors, along with the assassination of black leaders. I believe if kids are properly educated in elementary school, they will not continue to lag behind.”

Shortly after graduating from JCTC with a 3.7 GPA, Williams had his gold teeth replaced. A long-held dream came true when he was accepted to Morehouse College in Atlanta and graduated two years later cum laude with two degrees.

After graduating from Morehouse in 2005, Williams began working with at-risk kids at Pivot to Peace, the Youth Violence Prevention Research Center at the University of Louisville, and later at Right Turn and as youth director at Elim Baptist Church.

He joined the staff at Hope Collaborative in 2019.

No day at Hope Collaborative is typical. Williams continues to work with school principals and mentors.

Last year, one of the Shawnee High School mentors asked if Hope Collaborative could help buy Christmas presents for the girls she mentored. Their want-list shocked her.

“They asked for things like a bed to sleep in, food to make Christmas dinner,” Williams said. “Not one asked for a Nike jogging suit, a new pair of shoes or an iPhone. We partnered with Southeast to help them. That made Christmas for all of us.”

To learn more about Hope Collaborative or volunteer, email Jeff@hopeccd.org.