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William Kellibrew

William Kellibrew IV

Exchange programme: Business 2008

At 41, William Kellibrew IV has inspired and empowered many through his work, artistic talent and powerful presentations on on some of the most pressing issues impacting children, youth, families and communities. 

Recently, William visited the UK touring the City of Sunderland and making a brief trip to the House of Parliament in London where the City of Sunderland arranged a special guided tour by Member of Parliament Sharon Hodgson’s staff. 

We caught up with William during his brief visit to the University at the Gateway building in the City Campus. As we met with William, we began to understand his passion behind his work and why Sunderland was an important place to him. 

He explains: “I came to Sunderland as an exchange student. I was chosen to represent the ‘Friendship Pact’ between Washington DC and Sunderland. Elizabeth Hill and I were the first scholarship students who came to study to the University of Sunderland as part of the agreement.”

“We didn’t know that we were going to be extremely popular, but we were on the news and in the papers during the first few weeks and became sort of American celebrities in Sunderland.” 

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William says: “Thanks to the Vice-Chancellor then, Professor Peter Fidler, with his University-based relationships we got invited to watch and listen to Prime Minister Blair’s first official speech after serving as prime minister. That was an amazing and educational experience. I learned a lot.”

Building on William’s own experience as a child when he travelled abroad at age twelve to Ireland for the first time, he has continued to engage children and youth to expand their horizons and expose them to the many benefits of learning about different cultures and places. Studying as an exchange student opened William’s perspective entirely.

“Coming from the kind of neighbourhood I came from, you did not get these kind of opportunities,” laments William. “You are lucky if you get a chance to leave the city limits at all. I grew up in poverty and our family struggled with just putting bread and meals on the table.”

While it may seem as if William’s life is full of adventure and life-long learning, it was his traumatic childhood that separated and isolated him during his troubled teenage and young adult years almost ending any chance of a hopeful and positive future.

After witnessing the tragic murders of his mother, Jacqueline and 12-year-old brother, Anthony in their family living room, a devastated 10-year-old William was expected to pick up the pieces and move on. 

In 2006, then Mayor Anthony Williams and City Leader Bob Symonds signed a Sister City Agreement between the two cities sparking a relationship that has been continued by former Mayor Vincent Gray. 

During William’s stint in Sunderland studying business in 2007, City Leader Symonds appointed both William and Elizabeth as world-wide ambassadors for the City of Sunderland, a life-time appointment. William and Liz joined the ranks of famous ambassadors such as Kate Adie, Melanie Hill, Lord Putnam and others who represent the city’s interests both locally, nationally and abroad.

William has continued to own his role and visits Sunderland quite frequently forging and sustaining relationships he built during his first visit. He sits on the Sunderland-Washington Steering Committee facilitated by the Secretary of the District of Columbia meeting bi-annually and hosting a number of events related to the two cities’ agreement. Catherine Auld and Thomas Hurst have guided the relationship from Sunderland and have been integral parts of William’s efforts in the city. 

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The event would set off a set of circumstances that nearly destroyed his family. However, it was William’s grandmother who would assume the role as caregiver for him, his other two brothers and sister. Their task seemed an insurmountable one – to face life each day knowing that they would never see their mom and brother again. 

It wasn’t easy for William. He had become hyper-vigilant, aroused and stood on alert thinking that danger was always lurking around every corner. He had felt the shame and humiliation of watching the most important person in his life destroyed before his very eyes.

William’s pain and frustration led him down a pathway of deep depression. He joined violence-based groups and activities, stole cars, used substances and alcohol to cope and lived his entire teenage and young adult years contemplating suicide.

His grandmother, Ms Short, reflected on his resilience: “William was suicidal growing up. He just did not want to live anymore. His first-ever therapist at age 13 was his catalyst to begin and slowly understand the healing process. Through family therapy we continued to work on our pain.”

After working in the restaurant and service industry for over nine years following getting his G.E.D. (General Equivalency Diploma), William decided to attempt his hand at a college education. This would be his third attempt to register on his own. Isolated in his decision and frightened about the outcome, William successfully registered at the University of the District of Columbia where he had begun to thrive in class. Silent and unassuming, he faced many challenges learning in class, but he forged ahead to become a two-time student government president, a student ambassador and senior class president. He had received a scholarship to play tennis and was awarded the Hemsley Award for his on and off-the-court attitude and service to his university and community.

It wasn’t until Bill Cosby, the famous comedian, who before knowledge of his highly profiled controversy, met William and invited him to discuss his past traumatic experiences to give a live and television audience an indication of the impact that trauma can have on a person and their family particularly children. William told his story for the first time in front of his school community that day and has since been using his story ever since to raise awareness of the impact of domestic violence, sexual assault and other victimizations impacting children, youth and families.

Now, a global leader and an international advocate for human, civil, children’s and victim’s rights, William travels extensively to educate and bring awareness on a range of issues including mental health, substance use, violence, trauma and how values and leadership play a role in being able to cope and bounce back from adversity.

“I support victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and gun violence in order to support them in addressing their traumas,” says William. “It’s very rewarding to see the change in the people who were in the same circumstances that I was when I was a child. I just give without expecting anything back. I know from my own experience that when you are going through a traumatic situation you don’t have the ability to even say thank you to those who are supporting you. And because I know that I don’t expect anything in return, I can leave judgment out of the picture. It has and always will be about the people who cared about and did not give up on me.”

In October 2011, during National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, William was recognized by the White House as a ‘Champion of Change’ working to end domestic violence and sexual assault and has blogged for the White House.

However this hasn’t been William’s greatest achievement to date as he comments: “Even though the White House has recognised me as a ‘Champion of Change’ it is my ability to be a voice for others, especially the voices of victims whose voices have been stolen by violence and trauma.”

When asking William about his abiding memories of Sunderland and his time living here he is quick to reply: “I forged long-lasting relationships. I used to play on the Sunderland tennis team and I still keep in touch with my former team mates.”

“I was also selected to an office on the Student Council. I still remember standing outside the Murray Library handing out leaflets and I was so grateful when I was elected and served.”

He continues: “Professor Peter Fidler influenced me the most at Uni. He was always available and cared about me while I was here. He was a sort of UK father and mentor figure. I will never forget his compassion and encouragement. Those lessons and his support undergirds me still today.”

William’s journey has taken him across the globe to engage individuals who have experienced homeless to world leader including the President of the United States. He consults with celebrities, community leaders, state governments, non-profits, businesses, and other agencies including organizations such as the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors, US Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime’s Training and Technical Assistance Center and is a faculty member with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Center for Trauma Informed Care and Alternatives to Seclusion and Restraint among many.

To know William, is to know humanity. While William admits that he is far from perfect, he understands now that he is worthy and belongs and no one or anything can change that again.

In 2013, William was presented with the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Voice Award for his work as a peer/consumer leader throughout the United States and in 2015 the U.S. Congressional Victims’ Rights Caucus presented him with the Eva Murillo Unsung Hero Award for his work to support victims and survivors of crime.  

His story of tragedy to triumph has been featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show, CNN, BBC Worldwide, MSNBC, FOX News, CSPAN and countless national and international media outlets and publications. 

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