(MIAMI, FL) — When he was just four and a half years old, Joshua Williams ran into a homeless man on his way to church. Struck by the harsh reality of poverty and hunger, Joshua handed the man $20 — a gift he received from his grandmother hours earlier. Fifteen years later, his selfless act survives as Joshua’s Heart Foundation, a youth-run nonprofit aimed at stomping out world hunger.
It took Joshua several years to make his vision come to life, but it took him only a few days to switch gears after the coronavirus pandemic interrupted his endeavor.
Since March, Joshua, a 19-year-old NYU student, has been juggling online school and unanticipated changes in his organization from his home in Miami.
“Everything has changed with coronavirus — and much of these adjustments go against my philosophy,” said Joshua, as he braided his naturally-wavy hair into a bun. “I have no choice but to avoid close contact with people and food.”
Since 2005, Joshua’s Heart Foundation has fostered a sense of community. Before the pandemic, hundreds of volunteers would line up every weekend, leading and participating in food distributions for their hometown’s most vulnerable people. Volunteers as young as four-years-old handed out ‘hope boxes,’ filled with food, toiletries, and inspirational notes, to the hungry. The foundation has distributed more than two million pounds of food over the last 15 years, according to its website.
But, facing a worldwide pandemic, Joshua had to take a step back. Accessing food and distributing it safely has become his top priority.
“Our personal protective equipment, especially our masks, put up a barrier,” said Joshua. “The experience is very depersonalized, but I have to do my best to keep the mission alive.”
Since mid-March, the foundation has done its best to maintain a close-knit community. Although in-person food drives have been called off temporarily, Joshua has partnered with the City of North Miami Beach and other entities to distribute hundreds of food boxes.
Our personal protective equipment, especially our masks, put up a barrier. The experience is very depersonalized, but I have to do my best to keep the mission alive – Joshua Williams
Protected by masks and gloves, Joshua and his team of staff members disinfect their warehouse, wipe down food items, and deliver boxes to the home of elderly — or fragile — families.
“We have been feeding those that cannot go to our drive-thru site. This is for the families that are stuck at home and have no transportation,” said Tobi Ash, director of Joshua’s Heart. “We have offered sanitary supplies, as well.”
The coronavirus has decimated the foundation’s well-established supply chain, and Joshua’s Heart has been unable to meet demands without extra funding. Throughout the pandemic, out-of-pocket expenses for food items and increased workload have been Joshua’s two haunting companions.
“My awesome volunteers have donated money, too,” he added. “A dollar can provide up to eight meals.”
Although volunteers are the lifeblood of the nonprofit, they cannot lend a helping hand — as long as social distancing measures are set in place. This poses an additional challenge for Joshua.
“Our clientele has increased exponentially,” said Joshua. “We’ve been adopting a new model of work to target this, which evidently leads to an increased workload.”
For nearly three months, Joshua has witnessed the pandemic’s impact on Miami with growing job losses and escalating demand for food.
The fear in the city is tangible. People are frightened — but Joshua refuses to give in to the distress.
“The job of helping those going through hardship is challenging, but the opportunity to learn from it has changed my outlook on life,” said Joshua.