From Founding to Funding, Christopher Williams Finds Purpose in Service

Board members at first in-person gathering

DRESDEN, TN – As a philosophical concept in ancient Greek thought, Arete means “excellence” of any kind and is linked with an individuals’ fulfillment of purpose. Since his days in McKenzie as a student at Bethel University to his current role as the Director of Community Engagement at Rhodes College, Chris Williams has sought to live out this commitment through service. And, at least one local nonprofit continues to reap the benefit.

In October, Dresden-based Global Citizen Adventure Corps celebrated its first year of offering travel service-learning experiences to rural and economically-disadvantaged students. However, the roots of Global Citizen Adventure Corps goes much further back. And Williams, the organization’s current treasurer, was a witness to the origin story and is now working to ensure the scholarships to assist program participants will be there when needed.

While studying education, Williams founded and helped lead Arete, a local model of a needs-focused group found across the nation.

As a student-led service organization, Arete began with projects like walking dogs for the Carroll County Humane Society, collecting supplies for an area women’s shelters, and helping build houses with Habitat for Humanity. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Arete members left Carroll County for the first time to assist with the effort. They then expanded to other areas of need in the U.S.
Williams helped shaped the organization alongside faculty advisors – one of whom was Stacie Freeman, a sociology professor at Bethel. After Williams graduated, Arete continued. In 2010, Freeman noted that Bethel’s Arete had volunteers in all four corners of the country. She then asked herself, “why not in every corner of the earth?” and from those Arete roots, Bethel’s Global Studies Program with Freeman at the helm was born in 2011.

Freeman offered international travel opportunities tied to service projects as proposed by partnering groups in each country. More than a decade later, while she is thrilled to see students taking advantage of the opportunities, she realized that to achieve the dream of reaching even more students coming from rural or financially challenged homes, she was going to need raise scholarship funding.
Working with Julie Hill, a fellow educator, she co-founded GCAC to serve as the nonprofit that could do the fundraising necessary. And who did they tap for the pivotal role of treasurer? Williams, who was now employed at the very institution – Rhodes College – that Freeman initially turned to as a blueprint for what Bethel’s Global Studies and GCAC would eventually become.

In his Community Engagement role at Rhodes and as a youth director at Shady Grove Presbyterian Church in his current hometown of Memphis, Williams is dedicated to giving teens and young adults a new perspective.

Originally from Jackson, with a B.S. in History from Bethel and a Master of Arts in Ministry from McCormick Seminary, Williams has focused his career on education, theological reflection, and community service.

Williams shares that his support of GCAC is based on the idea that “the best thing we can offer people is a broader world view.”

“The work we do through GCAC is important,” he shared. “Our primary focus on broadening the experience for rural students is most important because their world is becoming silo-ed. No one is prioritizing rural America in terms of funding academic pursuits. We are one of the few nonprofits giving students an opportunity to not only catch up but lead.”

His own experience in service has taken him from Appalachia to Arizona, from McKenzie to Memphis where he worked with AmeriCorps and now encourages students to discover the impact of service.
“Service work is humanizing work and not motivated by self,” he explained. “Giving back what’s been given to you is sort of biblical. When you realize you do have something to offer and then offer it, it makes us a better human being.”

As GCAC’s treasurer, Williams wants to bring best practices to the fledgling nonprofit. He wholeheartedly supports GCAC’s commitment to only go where an in-country partnering entity has identified a need.

“The thing we can do wrong with a lot of engagement is thinking we have the answers instead of listening to the community and figuring out how we can best serve while also being sustainable,” he noted.

Freeman celebrates the “full circle” journey Williams has undergone from student to board member, “From McKenzie to Memphis and beyond, the whole world is better with Christopher Williams in it!”

Board members at first in-person gathering

Service looks a little different for Chris Williams these days. As a Bethel University student, he founded Arete, a student-led service organization that served as the impetus for the global studies program that eventually birthed Global Citizen Adventure Corps. Williams, shown here at the first in-person gathering of the GCAC board in January 2023, now serves as the fledgling nonprofit’s treasurer. (Clockwise around the table are Ashley Burnett, Ed Sargent, Lynn Alexander, Joyce Washington, and Williams.)



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