BAKERSFIELD — High in the clear blue sky on a crisp winter’s day, a ray of light gleams off a pale sign. Simple black letters read, “Lucas James Williams Memorial Fund.” Behind it lays a barren field, where in the distance two men slowly work on a roof of what will eventually be a wooden pavilion.
“You can feel him there.”
Those are the words of Rosalie Williams, the mother of Lucas James Williams, a U.S. marine who died 20 years ago in Kuwait. On Dec. 23, 1998, the news of her son’s death was delivered to Rosalie and her husband at their Bakersfield home. Two U.S. Marines knocked on their door to tell the couple that 19-year-old Lucas was killed during a Humvee crash while serving in Desert Fox.
Since that tragic day, Williams has turned the greatest loss of her life into one of the biggest gifts to the community of Bakersfield and beyond.
In early 1999, the Williams family launched the Lucas James Williams Memorial Youth Fund. It started out simple, with the family inviting community children to come together during the summer. Williams would take the kids on free trips rollerblading, or out to pizza.
Eventually, Williams bought the field that the foundation now sits on, and began offering camps, hunter safety courses and fishing derbies. She even hosts a haunted forest during Halloween.
Now, as Williams remembers the 20th anniversary of her son’s death, she’s giving the Bakersfield community an even bigger blessing. Seventeen years in the works, a wooden pavilion is being built on the property of the foundation. Williams hopes the structure will be complete by the end of the year.
Having a permanent structure for the foundation has been Williams’ longest dream for Lucas’s memory.
“In the beginning I always wanted something solid,” Williams said. “A home for Lucas’s memorial and for the kids in the community.”
The holdup was Act 250, Vermont’s land use and development control law. In order to build the structure, they would have to go through an archaeological study and hire an engineer to draft a septic and water design for the site — which costs money and resources that the foundation didn’t have available.
Then Tom Hango, a Vermont State Trooper and former Bakersfield resident, passed the pavilion.
“I explained to Tom that we didn’t have that kind of money, and the project had to be put on hold for the time,” Williams said. “He looked at me and said, ‘My dad is an engineer.'”
The next day, Hango’s father, Roy, stopped by. Roy spent the next few days on site, completing the designs.
“That’s how it happens,” Williams said. “Everything has happened like that.”
Once finished, the pavilion will be a 40-foot by 110-foot place for kids to congregate during the programs offered by the foundation. Williams expects the platform will begin huge growth for the organization, allowing greater flexibility during bad weather, and more events locally. In the past, the foundation would have to use buildings around the town.
Though the pavilion is still being built, the concrete foundation was completed back in November.
“I want to see the pavilion up, but when the concrete was poured, my dream came true,” Williams said. “Because that concrete is not going anywhere.
“I don’t care if I have to wait another six months to another year for it to be finished. We’ve accomplished something solid. Can you imagine what we can do on that piece of concrete? Can you imagine what an awesome ice rink that could be? Or even a little roller skating place? There’s so much potential.”
Besides the pavilion under construction, several small huts, a volleyball net, a swimming pool and a food cart also sit on the foundation’s property. Here children are invited to bonfires, ice cream sundae parties, volleyball tournaments and more.
Each summer the organization hosts its annual fishing derby on the property. Williams herself also leads a summer day camp, a firearm safety course in the fall, the hunter education course and a bow class. In the past, the organization even had its own food shelf.
All programs and food are offered to children and adults free of charge, regardless of income.
Williams said she has graduated over 2,000 students in the foundation’s history. She feels the programs empower women.
“I’ve even had young girls tell me they would never have known how to play outside if it wasn’t for this camp,” Williams said.
Throughout the years, the foundation has experienced some losses of its own.
A dear friend of Williams, Marvin Braley, passed away out on that field in 2014.
“He helped build the huts, the dressing room, the food cart,” Williams said. “He helped no matter what we needed over there.”
One afternoon, Marvin collapsed while helping to distribute food for the foundation’s food pantry.
“I tried to bring him back,” Williams said. “I yelled and I screamed at that man. I said, ‘Don’t you dare die here, Marvin.’ He opened his eyes — I was giving him CPR, he opened his eyes, and a smile came on his face.”
Marvin was rushed to Northwestern Medical Center, where doctors determined he had a massive heart attack.
“Marvin would have given anything to see this pavilion,” Williams said, “and I know he’s there, just like my son’s there.”
Since Marvin’s passing, the foundation has stopped handing out food. Williams explained that things just didn’t feel right without his help, but she does hope to start up the service again in the future.
In the meantime, Williams plans to have a plaque placed in the finished pavilion in honor of Marvin, and other elderly volunteers who have since passed.
“For as long as I can remember, everyone has been like a Marvin,” Williams said. “They wanted to help, they wanted to be there, they wanted to be a part of it.”
The pavilion’s construction comes as Williams enters an even harder time of her life. She’s recently been diagnosed with two brain tumors, and has just received word the tumors are growing.
But despite her prognosis, Williams remains full of energy and excited for the future of the foundation.
“I have to always stay positive,” Williams said. “Lucas’s memorial has always been a positive for me. I do it from the heart. It took my son to die to do what I’m doing.”
The pavilion’s construction will continue into the winter. Williams does not yet have an end date for the project, but remains hopeful as she watches the work being done.
“The very first time I saw those trusses going up [on the pavilion], it was a feeling just like I was touching Lucas,” Williams said. “The clouds opened up, and the sun shown down on me. It was this incredible feeling of a dream coming true.”
Those interested in either volunteering their time or getting involved with the Lucas James Williams Youth Fund can learn more about what’s offered at http://www.lucasjameswilliamsyouthfund.org/.
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