North East Connected

One Sunderland student’s journey from the depths of despair to global recognition

At 10-years-old William Kellibrew witnessed the horrific murder of his mother and brother in their family home.

Shocked and frightened, he was left to pick up the pieces and try to move on with his life.

But how do you ever come to terms with such a tragic event?

University of Sunderland graduate William has devoted his life to helping others, to raising awareness of domestic violence and to supporting child victims.

Now a global leader and an international advocate for human, civil, victims’ and children’s rights, he travels the world as a beacon of hope, showing just how you can bounce back from adversity.

William has also been nominated for a Social Impact Award at the British Council Alumni Awards, which are due to be held this week.

William’s time as a student in Sunderland has left a lasting impression on the 41-year-old who was handpicked to represent a unique ‘Friendship Pact’ created between Washington DC and the city.

William’s story begins thousands of miles away from Wearside, in Capitol Heights, Maryland, USA, on July 2, 1984.

His mother, Jacqueline, and 12-year-old brother, Anthony, were in the living room of the family home when Jacqueline’s partner, who had only recently moved out, took out a gun.

Nearby, William sat quietly on the steps by the front door.

Loading the gun, the man walked over to William’s mother and shot her twice. He them moved towards Anthony, and again unloaded the weapon twice.

The tragedy almost destroyed William’s family.  It was his grandmother, Delores Short, who took on the parental role to the schoolboy and his other brothers and sister.

Their task seemed an insurmountable one – to face life each day knowing that they would never see their mum and brother again.

The tragedy would impact severely on young William. He sunk into a depression, riddled with pain and frustration, he struggled to cope throughout his teenage and young adult years, often contemplating suicide.

William said: “My teens were the worst. I, literally, felt suicidal each morning I woke up.

“My grandmother Delores modelled resilience and held on for the family. It is in large part due to her love and support that I started to see the opportunity in life and the humanity that was possible for my own life.

“Going back to school after the murders at age 10 was extremely difficult for me and my siblings, especially after never attempting school without my mom, but I tried to walk in the classroom and put on my game-face and act like nothing ever happened.

“It was three years later in my first therapy session that I began to see what hope looked like through the eyes of an intern social worker.”

After working in the restaurant and service industry for nine years, William decided to try his hand at a college education. He successfully registered at the University of the District of Columbia.

Quiet and unassuming, he soon began to thrive, forging ahead to become a two-time student government president.

William then began to speak openly of his past traumatic experiences, telling his story at first to school children in a bid to raise awareness and bring something positive from something so horrific.

William said: “Witnessing the killings of my mother and brother destroyed me and took away my dignity, but with support from my grandmother, family, and key support systems in place, I eventually was able to rebuild my life.

“The single-most important thing I have ever done in life is to strengthen my own capacity to bring humanity into spaces where trauma and violence breathes and lives.

“Trauma is the germ of the 21st Century. We cannot often see it. It spreads like bacteria. In my work, I use public health approaches such as value-based and trauma-informed practices to engage others who have been impacted by trauma and violence.

“As a kid, I always had dreams of being a doctor or a helper. Never in my wildest dreams did I believe that I would be considered to be an inspiration globally to those who are struggling each day.”

But that is what William has become.

In October 2011, during National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, William was recognised by the White House as a ‘Champion of Change’.

His story of tragedy to triumph has been featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show and his worked endorsed by presidents of the United States.

William was also chosen to represent the Friendship Pact that was created between Washington DC and the City of Sunderland.

He came over and studied Business and Management at the University of Sunderland, becoming the first student to do so under the friendship agreement

William said: “We didn’t know that we were going to be extremely popular, but we were on the news and in the papers during the first few weeks and became sort of American celebrities in Sunderland.

“I forged long-lasting friendships in Sunderland. I used to play on the Sunderland tennis team and I still keep in touch with my former team mates.

I was also selected to an office of the Student Council. I still remember standing outside the Murray Library, handing out leaflets and I was so grateful to get elected.

Now, William has been nominated for a Social Impact Award at the British Council Alumni Awards.

William said: “I came from an impoverished background on public assistance for half of my life. I have seen struggle. I have lived it. It is my duty to mentor and support others who had similar challenges like my family did.”

William has continued to return to Sunderland over recent years, forging and sustaining relationships he built during his first visit.

He sits on the Sunderland-Washington steering committee and maintains a passion for the University and the city.

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