Melvin Williams dreamed of playing football in college.
But those dreams were shattered during his junior year at Little Rock Central High School when he injured his back and was in a wheelchair for a few weeks. Torn ligaments resulted in severe pain and he could no longer perform well on the football field. His grades started to slip and he dropped out of school right before he turned 18.
Now 35, he has his high school diploma and is working on getting a college degree, thanks to a nudge from his wife and Goodwill Industries of Arkansas.
The Excel Center at Goodwill is a fully accredited and cost-free public high school for adults ages 19 and older. The center opened in 2017, and so far more than 50 students have received their diplomas.
A few years ago, Williams lost his job as a general manager at a store and was looking for work. His wife is a high school science teacher who always encouraged her husband to go back to school. She had heard about the Goodwill program and encouraged him to check it out.
Williams graduated in December 2019 and now is seeking a business degree by attending classes for two years at the University of Arkansas-Pulaski Tech and then completing the course work at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
"Ever since I walked into the place it has changed my life. It was everything I needed right when I needed it. It helped remove some of the barriers I had in the work world and ultimately I wanted to be able to go farther," he says.
Not only is Williams a Goodwill graduate, he now is one of their newest employees. He impressed the agency's leaders after he was selected to speak to U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., while the Arkansas congressman was on a tour of the Goodwill facility. At that time, Goodwill was discussing strategies to increase enrollment and was looking for someone to handle recruitment and retention.
"We all kind of looked at each other and said, 'What about Melvin?'" says Goodwill Industries of Arkansas CEO Brian Marsh. "Melvin is exactly who we need for this role. ... The majority of people who work here have a passion for what we do and it's what drives them, and Melvin brings that with him every day."
More than 300,000 Arkansans over the age of 25 do not have a high school diploma, according to Marsh. At Goodwill's Excel Center, 70% of the students have children, 45% are single parents and 72% receive public assistance. Of the 50 students who have received diplomas, 84% are now taking classes at 2- or 4-year colleges.
"Helping these individuals take the next step and realize the dream of having a high school diploma, but then taking the next step to become recession proof, is what we are focused on right now," Marsh says.
Nationally, Goodwill has more than 150 organizations. In Arkansas, there is only one. The Arkansas organization operates 44 locations in the state where people can make donations to be sold in Goodwill's retail stores. Those donations make up 96% of the revenue of Goodwill Industries of Arkansas and fund programs like its high school for adults.
Every few years, Marsh and his team assess its programs to make sure the organization is meeting the needs of Arkansans. The covid-19 pandemic altered the playbook, and the organization began looking at offering courses for jobs that they believe will be in high demand.
"We are trying to design programs that fit the needs and the future business needs of employers and the wants and desires of job-seekers or people who are employed but want to advance," Marsh says.
In addition to the high school, there's the Academy at Goodwill, which is licensed by the Arkansas State Board of Private Career Education. Through the academy, students can earn certificates in jobs such as welding, forklift operator, CPR, mental health first aid and environmental services technician. Most classes are offered at zero-to-low cost. Anyone is eligible despite income levels.
In Williams' case, obtaining his high school diploma was about more than getting a better-paying job -- it was about his self-esteem and how his three boys, ages 17, 6 and 5, see him. He is now able to help his oldest son with his geometry homework and says his child "looks at me differently."
His oldest boy is on track to graduate from eStem Charter High School in 2022, and Williams and his wife have instilled in their kids the importance of an education.
"Goodwill changed my life and not only my life but my whole family. When I came to Goodwill it changed my whole household. This place means everything to me, and to come back and work here -- I already feel like I could never repay Goodwill. ... I love this place. It rehabbed me."
Williams' wife recently took the Medical School College Admission Test and plans to go to med school in a year. Before, Williams says, he always put his wife's education ahead of his own.
"It's a mark against your self esteem," Williams says of dropping out of high school. "It's a mark against your confidence. You always kind of doubt yourself when you don't have those things. And Goodwill taught me that it is not about moving fast, it's about moving correctly."
For more information about the Excel Center, the Academy or to make a donation, see goodwillar.org.
CORRECTION: A previous headline on this story was inaccurate. Melvin Williams received his high school diploma.