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People Are Awesome: He Created A Bus System To Bring Flint Residents Out Of A Food Desert

Derrek Williams stepped in when the last supermarket closed

Courtesy of Derrek Williams

We’re relaunching a GOOD online series, “People Are Awesome,” where we feature good people doing great things—and seek their advice, inspiration, and ideas. This week’s Awesome Person: Derrek Williams.

The people of Flint can’t seem to catch a break. For many years, the hard-luck Michigan city was a symbolic face of crumbling, post-industrial America—ever since Michael Moore profiled his hometown’s decay in the seminal documentary Roger & Me. More recently, Flint made national news for the abysmal quality of its lead-laced water supply. Then last spring, residents of Flint’s hardscrabble east side—where General Motor’s plant had been located—lost its last supermarket.

“I went to my boss and said ‘What are we going to do about this?’” says Derrek Williams, a two-decade veteran of Flint’s Metropolitan Transit Authority. “I wanted to know how those people were supposed to get their groceries.”

In a city like Flint, where more than 40 percent of residents live below the poverty line, it was a vital question. Together with his boss, general manager Edgar Benning, Williams devised a subsidized bus system to bring riders directly to two supermarkets across town. Dubbed “Ride to Groceries,” the program now helps out upwards of 100 people per day, over a 16-hour span.

The program worked so well, in fact, that Williams went on to help launch “Rides to Wellness,” another subsidized bussing system that gives transportation to health facilities (many of them children’s clinics). Williams, who says he regularly works 16-hour days, says these programs were simply the right thing to do.

“I don’t live on that side of town,” he says, “but when that store left, I knew we couldn’t just let this thing fall to the ground. It felt really good that we could do something.”

Williams generously took precious time away from his family to let us know some of what’s closest to his heart.

Who is your hero?

It’s honestly my general manager, and not just because he's my boss. I have worked with Edgar for 25 years, gotten to know him for all that time. He has a real knack for working with mentally challenged people. It’s a gift he has, but I think he doesn't even know that he has it. It makes you look at yourself, to think, ‘What can I do to be that way?’ You start to examine if you measure up to Ed Benning.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

‘Always treat people the way you would like to be treated’—it came from my mother. All people want to be treated fairly, all people want to be treated equally. It’s simple.

How about the worst advice?

‘Your job is just a paycheck’. For everything you do, I think you get in what you put out. The effort you put in is what makes your work rewarding.

What’s the last thing that made you laugh out loud?

(Williams immediately starts laughing heartily.) Wow. Let’s see here. Well I can’t stop laughing whenever I watch anything with Bernie Mac. Bernie uses his life experiences to tell you a story. I can relate to so much he talks about. There was one routine where he talks about waiting at a bus stop. There’s a little kid on bus, and the little kid stutters. The bus driver puts him off the bus and his mom comes to find out why. (Note: We kept out the punchline but you can watch the bit here.)

If you could be anywhere else in the world right now, where would it be?

Miami. Oh man, the water, the weather, with a cool breeze, that would be a nice place to relax. My day-to-day life is usually busy from 4 in the morning until 8 at night. I get real involved in the hustle and bustle, tied up with what I do every day. Miami would be pretty nice.

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