Ken Williams was a man of honor and courage, and above all else, a teacher. Throughout a life marked by devotion to others, simplicity, and humility, he illuminated a shining path that we could aspire to walk.
Ken, a homeless outreach social worker, Viet Nam combat Marine Veteran, writer, father, husband, and voice for those without voices, died at the age of 68 years old, on June 10, 2018, following a long struggle with acute myeloid leukemia, a bone marrow disorder resulting from Ken’s exposure to Agent Orange and Napalm.
Ken’s life began in San Diego, CA, with his upbringing and school years taking place in La Mirada, CA. His closest companions in youth were his two beloved sisters, and his adored dogs that he trained for show. As a boy, Ken visited a children’s hospital on a school trip, and finding himself so impacted by the plight of his fellow children went home to collect all the pennies he could find to donate to the hospital. This small act of compassion, driven by sensitivity to the suffering of others, would be the first in a lifetime defined by them.
During his high school years, Ken again heard the call to moral duty that made him gather the family’s pennies as a child, and volunteered to join the Marine Corp during the height of the Viet Nam War. He served in country from 1969 through 1971. Ken’s combat tour was cut short when he contracted P. falciparum malaria, dysentery, and scrub typhus, resulting in a month-long coma and lengthy convalescence aboard a hospital ship.
While hospitalized, Ken observed the treatment of two severely wounded Vietnamese girls whose bodies were scarred and deformed from exposure to Napalm. Witnessing these horrors led Ken to laying down his rifle forever and engendered in him a life-long devotion to peace. Farther along into his recovery Ken read the novel “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden”, which detailed a young girl’s struggle with mental illness. Realizing he would in fact survive the war, he felt his life’s vocation would be in aiding those suffering from mental as well as physical wounds.
Upon returning to the civilian world, Ken became a fierce anti-war activist, finding kindred spirits and lifelong friends while attending UCSB, where he received a Bachelor’s Degree majoring in Psychology, with a minor in History. It was here, recognizing the struggles of the working class, he became active in union organizing, an activity he would continue throughout his professional life.
Ken would find his life’s greatest calling upon becoming an employee at the Santa Barbara County Department of Social Services. Ken’s early work exposed him to the poor and marginalized of Santa Barbara, and also to the disdain with which they were all too frequently treated. Observing the sufferings of this population, consisting of returned Viet Nam veterans, the mentally ill, substance abusers, and others let down by society, Ken took matters into his own hands. He became Santa Barbara’s first homeless outreach worker, venturing into the streets, the camps, and the shelters where these people survived. Ken spent the next 35 years helping vulnerable individuals with everything from shelter and food, to mental health and medical care, and most often, a kind smile, and an open heart.
Ken’s devotion to the less fortunate extended beyond his occupation. Having the insight to see what was needed and the ability to provide it outside the traditional channels, he started a number of humanitarian programs throughout his life. These initiatives included Storyteller Children’s Daycare (providing daycare for poor working parents), Casa Rosa (a recovery home for pregnant homeless women), Maritza’s Cocina (a children’s soup kitchen), and The Fund for Santa Barbara (a grant foundation for social justice projects), among others. His proudest accomplishment was Project Healthy Neighbors, a MASH-style holistic care project of seven years that provided the homeless vaccinations, medical screening, clothing, shoes, mental health services, veteran’s services, haircuts, and other necessities prior to the onset of the winter season.
For his efforts both professional and private, Ken received honors from and awards such as, the Santa Barbara Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, Resolution of Commendation from the County of Santa Barbara, NETWORK Community Leader of the Year, State Senator Certificate of Recognition, Outstanding Service to the Salvation Army Hospitality House, South Coast Coordinating Council of Human Services, Resolution from the Housing Authority of Santa Barbara, ACLU Distinguished Service Award 1988, ACLU Civil Rights Hero 2010, the Independent Local Hero 1989, SB County Education Office Community Hero, Santa Barbara Mental Health Association Community Service, Legal Aid Foundation of Santa Barbara Richard Goldman Hero for Justice, Healthcare Hero, County of Santa Barbara K.I.D.S Network Child Friendly Award, NASW Community Service Honoree of the Year, and Santa Barbara Rescue Mission Teamwork Award. Additionally, Ken’s work was highlighted in two documentaries, Streets of Paradise, and Shelter. Though appreciative of such recognition, Ken always downplayed the notion that his efforts were deserving of accolades, he often downplayed the notion of accolades themselves. To Ken, there was a moral calling that reached out to all in life, high and low, and to answer it was the greatest duty of one’s life. Indeed it was what made this life worth living.
In mid-life, writing became a great passion for Ken. Finding another medium for his activism, Ken’s editorials, novels, short stories and poems sought to connect the reader with the injustices of poverty and prejudice, the suffering of war, and the humanity of those he witnessed. His writings appeared in Columbia University’s Columbia Journal, Cecile’s Magazine, the Huffington Post, and the Potomac among many others, including local news mediums. He also published several novels, namely China White and Fractured Angel.
Always something of a romantic, Ken found the greatest happiness of his life marrying his soul mate Donna Joy in 1993, the two having met while working side-by-side for at-risk populations. He enjoyed nothing more than the home life he built with her, passing his time with their children, listening to music, venturing to the ocean and the forests of his cherished California, celebrating other religions and cultures, reading constantly, exercising with discipline, cheering for the Lakers and Raiders, and, as always, making sure he and his boys had a dog to run around with.
Ken is survived by his devoted wife, their four sons, Aaron, Sal, Milo, and Shane, his granddaughter Chaya, and his two sisters, Georgia and Karen.
In Ken’s honor and memory, please consider donating to charities alleviating the suffering of the Syrian people, such as the Syrian American Medical Society, or Mercy Corps. This was Ken’s last humanitarian passion in a lifetime defined by them. A public memorial service will be held for Ken at the end of July.