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Cornell Williams may have been born blind, in part due to his albinism, but he’s not one to fret over the lot he was dealt. He’s one to spring to action — especially in the chaos and turmoil of the coronavirus crisis.
Back in mid-March, as so many of us swapped our office posts for WFH life, 50-year-old Williams continued to make the two-hour round-trip commute from the Bronx where he lives to his job at Richmond Hill in Queens. Williams is the lead porter at nonprofit Alphapointe, one of the country’s largest employers of blind people, as well as one of the largest providers of vision rehabilitation services.
The manufacturer — which makes everything from face masks for the military to mops for the federal government — was deemed essential during the pandemic. Williams’ job became even more labor-intensive in the wake of new cleaning protocols, but he took on his enhanced role at the 138,000-square-foot manufacturing complex with gusto.
“[Working at Alphapointe has] been phenomenal. It’s helped me establish myself and my work ethic,” he said. “I’m doing things I love, like working with my hands, working with plumbing, working with electric things. I’m working with a team of people who push me each day. I always tell people that it’s been like a breath of life for me. I get excited and want to come to work. It’s not like a job for me because it’s fun.”
Cornell began working at Alphapointe in 2017, and embraced his role on the front line.
“When we were told we were essential workers at the outset of the pandemic, fear didn’t grip us,” he said. “It was a sense that we represented something bigger than us. It meant that we were needed because we provide important services to people. It brought a sense of honor to us. Now, we are noticed. We’re important. We’re needed.”
In his day-to-day duties, no two days ever look alike for Williams, who was born without sight. While he regained partial vision when he was 12 years old, he is still legally blind.
“My day starts at 5 a.m. When I get to Alphapointe I make my normal rounds to see what needs to be done or addressed. I make sure that our team has all the necessary gear and equipment to complete the jobs that need to get done that day. I make sure they have the support that they need from me,” he said, adding that on his end, his role requires a lot of knowledge about carpentry, electricity and more.
But for Williams, his job is also about being a source of encouragement.
“I need to be a people-person and I need to understand how to keep my team motivated,” he said. “It’s about getting my team to come into work, do their jobs, do it efficiently and to read in between the lines on day-to-day stuff. Day in and day out, my goal is to show my team that I take what I do seriously.”
Doing all that is required of him is no easy feat, especially with limited eyesight, and especially during a global health crisis. But what the average person may see as a roadblock, Williams reframes as an opportunity.
“When the coronavirus broke out, it was important to be a light for people. Even with my blindness, I’m not going to let the coronavirus slow me down and make me depressed. It will not hold me back,” he said. “I think people saw that characteristic in me and it motivated them and gave them a sense of hope. It gave them a sense of purpose.”
Shortly after COVID proliferated in NYC in March, Williams added another activity to his roster: volunteering to help those in need. This transpired when a neighbor in his building asked if he could pitch in with delivering food and supplies to an elderly family.
“I started going door-to-door helping elderly people and those who were in need because they couldn’t leave their buildings,” he said. “From there, it just grew. People called me because I’m a chaplain for the New York City Chaplain Task Force and I just started helping people out when they called.” he said.
But, just a few weeks after his 50th birthday in March, Williams contracted COVID-19. “At the beginning when I got sick, I was definitely scared. I had feelings of fear, doubt, disbelief,” he said. He eventually landed in the hospital for a week, followed by a nearly monthlong quarantine until early June. He leaned on his faith to get him through.
“It wasn’t so much fear for myself, it was fear of not seeing my grandchildren grow up, not seeing my wife, not seeing my family. That fear worked two ways. It worked to keep me motivated and it also worked because I knew I could get through it because I believed it was God’s plan.”
In true Williams fashion, prior to getting sick, he often made it a point to distribute socks to the homeless at train stations. He knew he was back to his normal self when going up or down a flight of stairs to help someone out at the train station didn’t leave him winded and drained.
Throughout his volunteer work during the pandemic, Williams has taken to heart the valuable lessons he’s learned.
“I’ve seen the good and the bad in people,” he said. “And, no matter how much I’ve seen, it made me stronger. It made me a person who enjoys and realizes how blessed life is. There’s no other way to say it: I didn’t cherish life until I went through this. I really didn’t understand what life is about until I went through this.”
In addition to work and serving his neighbors, Williams volunteers at a local homeless shelter (he plans on playing Santa Claus there later this month).
“Live within the guidelines, but move forward and keep moving forward,” he said. “I believe those qualities I show help people know that we’ll get through this. I feel hopeful today. I know that we’ll overcome this.”