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Karen Williams - A Legacy of Advocacy and Service

Karen Williams spent nearly 40 years as an educator, but her impact on her community goes far beyond the classroom.

After graduating from Marshall University in 1975, Karen began her career as a teacher. She served in many roles as an educator and an administrator with Kanawha County Schools and West Virginia State University before her retirement.

However, “retirement” may not be the best word to describe the stage of life Karen is in - she spends her time volunteering with numerous organizations and is constantly looking for ways to better her community.

“I always knew that I wanted to be a teacher. I taught all ages - elementary, middle school, high school, and college. When I retired, I knew that I wanted to continue helping. I love teaching and working with others. If someone asks me for help, I have a hard time saying no!”

Among Karen’s professional experience is her time spent as the Director of the Head Start Program, teaching for the ROTC program at WVSU, and also teaching at an alternative school.

“I’ve had the opportunity to have a successful career as an educator and administrator. It has greatly impacted me, and it’s inspiring to see people get out of poverty and be able to get an education. You can make a difference when others have given up,” she said.

While reflecting on her experience, Karen said that she wants to be thought of as “someone who helps others become the best they can be. I want to be known as someone who helps plant the seeds for empowerment.”

Karen was born in Fayette County, West Virginia, and grew up in Charleston. She credits her parents, who were active in the Civil Rights Movement, for encouraging her to serve in her community.

“My father was the first Black graduate of the WVU School of Law, and my mother was a teacher. My parents taught me to give back. My father worked in civil rights, and I remember people coming to our house to work, and to strategize how to empower people.”

“As a child, you may not realize exactly what is happening around you, but you can observe and learn. They were willing to risk their existence to make the world better,” she said.

Since her retirement, Karen has spent her time volunteering with many organizations, including Our Future West Virginia, The Links Incorporated, and the Partnership of African American Churches.

Through her efforts with the Partnership of African American Churches, Karen has participated in events that have helped thousands of people have access to vaccines.

“It’s not a job - it’s my passion to help people. We see disparities in health care, and programs like these help people know that they have somewhere they can go for help,” she said.

Karen has been active in her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, for 50 years. She is also a lifetime member of the NAACP and serves on the health committee, noting that “it’s a collaboration with people who are focused on making an impact in their communities.”

In addition to her career and volunteer activities, Karen has been very involved in her church, Simpson Memorial United Methodist, including leading the bible school program for 20 years. She has served on the Charleston Light Opera Guild board and has even performed on stage in several shows.

Karen is most proud of her family. “I have been married for 46 years, and I am very proud of raising my family. I have three children and one grandson, and they all live in West Virginia. I always ask people, ‘how many of you want a better world for your children?’ West Virginia is home to me, and I’ve always worked to make my home a better place.”

When she received word that she was being honored as a Woman of Achievement this year, Karen also felt that she had come full circle with the YWCA.

“I’ve been involved with the YWCA since I was a little girl. I was born in the 50s, and was part of the first group that went to integrated schools here in Charleston. I attended camp at the YWCA, learned to swim there, and my mother served on the board. It was a place where you could go and be accepted. It empowered me and helped to make me the woman I am today,” she said.

Karen is also a breast cancer survivor and helped to plan a fashion show benefiting breast cancer survivors - choosing to wear an outfit from the YWCA Past and Present.

“The YWCA has done so many wonderful things. They have empowered me and I am thrilled and honored to receive this award,” she said.

Karen mentioned other women who have received the Women of Achievement honor - Mary C. Snow, Dr. Michelle Foster, Dr. Patricia Kusimo, Attorney Kitty Dooley, and Kenyatta Grant - and how they have inspired her.

“I’m hopeful that I can also be inspiring to other women. When I retired, I decided that I didn’t just want to sit by. I’m working where I’m needed, and I’m getting to tell my story. I hope with this honor that I can continue to encourage others to be the best that they can be.”


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