Mothers of Murdered Offspring co-founder Judy Williams is finalist for Citizen Service Above Self Honors.
By Cleve R. Wootson Jr.
Judy Williams speaks at a vigil last week for Josiah and Gabriel Hawthorne, two toddlers who were killed Feb. 28 in a fire at their west Charlotte home. LAURA-CHASE MCGEHEE -
It had been a rough weekend, so Judy Williams can be excused for nearly deleting the e-mail announcing that she is a finalist for the nation's highest civilian honor.
The e-mail was among dozens the co-founder of Mothers of Murdered Offspring sifted through Saturday in her west Charlotte apartment - after leading two memorial services and attending two funerals in the previous 24 hours.
The accolade is the Citizen Service Above Self Honors award, which is bestowed annually by the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation. Williams' son, City Council Member David Howard, fessed up to nominating her. Three winners will be announced March 25.
Williams is one of 20 selected as a finalist. Among them are community heroes, including an Alabama woman who rescued 44 people on a runaway bus, a South Dakota man who died saving two people from drowning, and a Boston doctor who volunteered his surgical skills in Haiti.
Williams' achievement is MOMO, a renowned local support group she launched in 1993 to help the loved ones of murder victims cope, and to draw the community's attention to senseless violence. Her own god-daughter, 20-year-old Shawna Hawk, was slain that year by serial killer Henry Louis Wallace.
Williams, 58, is frequently seen on TV and in the newspaper, surrounded by people in grief, carrying candles and balloons as they gather in memory of Charlotte's latest murder victims.
"People need this," she said Tuesday, sitting in her office at the apartment complex where she lives and works. "What we do is like an outdoor support meeting. We help people to grieve."
Williams estimates she's held more than 1,000 candlelight ceremonies and released countless balloons with attached photos and stories about the life and death of the victim they memorialize. She includes contact information and collects messages from people across the Carolinas who find the balloons.
Her nomination for the civilian honor is still surreal for Williams.
"It's hard to accept an award for something you like doing," she said. "I feel like it's something God called me to."
Williams credits Shawna Hawks' mother for using her own grief to help start MOMO. Six weeks after Hawk's funeral, Williams joined with Dee Sumpter to preside over the group's first meeting, which drew 50 people - all carrying photos of murdered children.
The police department donated space for their headquarters, and grants provided salary for paid staff. But over the last few years, grant funding dried up, and Williams found it easier to make her living room MOMO central. She doesn't take a salary, and MOMO functions mostly on donations and the 15 percent of her income she gives to the organization.
Over the last 17 years, she's logged thousands of miles in her blue Honda Odyssey, often filled with balloons. She also hauls a speaker and microphone to events and connects them to her car battery.
Last Friday night, in front of a burned-out house in west Charlotte, she expertly clicked two folding tables into place. A white tablecloth, two large candles and a vase filled with flowers came next. The final touch: Pictures of two toddlers who died in a fire inside the house while police say they were left unattended.
As gospel music played, she gathered the 100 or so people near the house amid blackened children's toys. Two hours later, at another homicide scene, Williams would repeat the process before the night was through.
It's physically and emotionally draining, she acknowledges, for a woman near retirement who also works full time and is trying to finish college by summer.
"What keeps me going is knowing that people say this helps them," she said. "When people say that, it helps give you the adrenaline to go another mile."