Tawana Williams knows the meaning of courage.
Born without arms, Williams endured tauntings and ridicule most of her life. But Williams turned her adversity into triumph when she became a motivational speaker. Her words of empowerment deliver an uplifting message to thousands across the country who are seeking hope and enlightenment.
“Before I was born, my mother was experiencing dizzy spells, so the doctor gave her some thalidomide pills. A few months later, I was born without arms.”
At 11 months old, Williams said she was trained to use her feet for her hands. “I learned how to dress, comb my hair and answer the phone with my feet.”
Placed in a school for disabled children, Williams rebelled. “I didn’t like it there, because I was brought up to be independent,” Williams recalled. “I begged my mother to let me go to public school.”
Williams said she experienced real pain and isolation when she enrolled in public school, where the taunts and stares of her classmates were a daily occurrence. “That’s when I realized that I was truly “different,” said Williams. “Every day, the kids teased, pointed, stared and laughed at me. I was humiliated on a daily basis. It was hard to endure, but I’m a fighter. I’m a soldier, so I took it.” Not only did Williams endure the taunts, but she studied hard and emerged as a straight-A, honor roll student.
It was in high school where Williams started hanging with a wild crowd.
“Most of the kids that I wanted to associate with were doing the wrong things,” she recalled. “They were drinking, smoking, skipping class, having sex. I changed who I was so that they would befriend me. I became a follower instead of a leader.”
In the 11th grade, Williams’ friends introduced her to marijuana. “By the 12th grade, I was introduced to crack cocaine,” Williams recalls. “I saw my friends sniffing it. They would cook it from a powder form into a rock form and then they would smoke it. As far as I knew, it looked like they were having fun.”
Then one day, one of Williams’ friends approached her and held a crack pipe to her mouth. “I remember he said, ‘Try it, Tawana, it will make you feel good.’ He lit the pipe and I inhaled. That was it,” she recalled.
The initial “high” quickly spiraled into addiction, and Williams said the next 10 years were “hell.” “I lived every day trying to find the next hit,” she admitted. “My life was in chaos. Then I got married, which lasted for a year.” During the brief marriage, Williams gave birth to a baby girl named April. “There’s no instructions in life-I learned to take care of April the best I could. I would put April on the floor and change her diaper and feed her with my feet.”
Despite the joy of being a mother, Williams could not shake her drug addiction. “After my marriage broke up, I just drifted from place to place. I’d get an apartment for a month or a year and lose it because of my drug addiction. And then I’d start all over again.”
“One night I cried out to God to kill me in my sleep or deliver me from crack,” said Williams, who that night experienced a spiritual transformation. “The next day, I woke up and suddenly I had no more craving for the drug. That’s when I knew I had to change-so I changed my lifestyle, my mindset, friends and my surroundings. I knew I had to work on me-and I did it. I’ve never touched a drug since,” Williams said proudly.
Then love stepped into Williams’ life. “His name was Toby-he and I were long-time childhood friends. His family had lived next door to my grandmother. We had stayed friends over the years. I remember saying to myself when I grew up, I wanted to marry someone just like Toby.”
One day, Williams received a long distance phone call from Toby, who was serving in the Air Force and in Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm. “I picked up the phone and Toby said, ‘When I come home, will you marry me?’ I was stunned. I realized that Toby loved me for my heart, despite the fact that I didn’t have arms.”
The couple married in December of 1991.
Next, Williams pounded the pavement looking for a job. But everywhere she went, she met rejection. “No one would hire me,” Williams recalled. The interviewer would say, ‘You aren’t qualified,’ or ‘How could you do the job with no arms?’ or ‘We’re not hiring.’”
Despite the constant rejection, Williams’ resolute determination remained. “I would not be defeated. When the world wouldn’t give me a job, I created my own job.” Williams decided to use her story to become a motivational speaker and founded Tawana Williams Outreach, Inc. in 2002.
“I had always been a fan of motivational speaker Les Brown. I contacted Mr. Brown and told him I wanted to become a motivational speaker and he took me under his wing,” said Williams.
Brown recalled that after meeting Williams, he knew that she was a special person. “When I met Tawana, I felt I was in the presence of greatness,” recalls Brown. “This warm, incredible human spirit does so much that she challenges all of us to look within and realize how much more life has to offer if only we were willing to commit ourselves to do what is required to live a more significant life.”
Since founding Tawana Williams Outreach, has written a book entitled Unarmed But Dangerous, about her journey of overcoming obstacles.
“I called my book Unarmed But Dangerous because the ‘weapons’ that I possess are dangerous-and those are my feet. I can do almost anything with them. I am an artist, poet, vocalist, wife and mother. I fed my own baby her bottle, braided her hair, bathed her, even dressed her with my two, blessed feet. I even respond to my own emails and type 35-40 words per minute with my feet.”
Chuckling, Williams added, “My grandmother told me at the age of four, ‘Tee (that’s my nickname), you must not have needed arms because God didn’t give them to you.’ She also said that everything that I needed I already had within myself.”
For the past 12 years, Williams has traveled to schools, churches, events and other venues and has emerged as one of the most in-demand motivational speakers in the country.
“I spent years crisscrossing the country and never got paid. But something in my spirit told me to go and speak and I am always glad I did.”
Williams said that she is inspired by God. “God is the main focus in my life. He’s first. He used me to show me I could do anything no matter what. He let me know long ago that if I didn’t do it, it wouldn’t get done. Also, he let me know that I had everything I needed…I was chosen by God to be just who I am.”
“I’m not a quitter; I’m a winner. We all must use whatever we have. If I had started out saying, ‘I can’t…I probably would not have made it. If you think you can’t, you won’t.”
Williams recalls speaking at a high school where she delivered a message of encouragement and hope. Afterwards, she greeted dozens of students who surrounded her. “I remember there was one young lady who came up to me. She hugged me and wouldn’t let me go,” recalls Williams. Weeks later, Williams received a letter from the young lady. “She said that the day I visited her school, she was on the verge of committing suicide that night. But after she heard all the things that I had gone through, she decided she wanted to live.”
Williams has also been a frequent visitor at prisons, where she said female inmates were moved to tears listening to her inspiring words. “I spoke at a women’s facility and after my speech, the inmates surrounded me and said, ‘Thank you for your words of inspiration. We’re never coming back here to be locked up. We’re going to do better and become contributing members of society.”
“They know I’m real,” she maintained. “I tell the audience, ‘You’ve got to fight like you’ve never fought before.’ I tell life every day, ‘Bring it! Whatever you’ve got for me today, I’ve got my boxing gloves on my feet. So, bring it on!”