A legacy of giving | Sammamish foundation still giving back more than a decade after tragedy

In 2002, the life of a Sammamish teen was cut short. More than a decade later, his legacy lives on stronger than ever because of the work of a community that wanted nothing more.

As Phil Williams speaks to a few dozen brightly clad teenagers and 20-somethings on a practice green at The Plateau Club, the unmistakable look of gratitude flashes in his eyes.

Williams goes through a quick checklist, mostly procedural items for the day on the course, remaining upbeat throughout as he hands out door prizes for a raffle among volunteers who will serve as caddies and event staff for a host of Sammamish residents, area philanthropists and local celebrities.

When he is through speaking he thanks them again for their participation and commitment to the mission of the day, walking off the green before being greeted by more handshakes and seemingly familiar faces. Judging solely by Williams’ demeanor, it is impossible to know just how closely that mission is to his heart, or the pain endured to see it realized.

One of a kind

Depending on who is asked, Joshua P. Williams was either a dependable friend, selfless mentor, dedicated athlete, loving son and brother or some combination of each.

To classmate and friend Brandon Hemphill, who also played sports with Williams before he died in a skiing accident in 2002, Josh’s charisma and selflessness were his defining traits.

“Josh was a very genuine kid,” Hemphill said. “There wasn’t anyone in our class who I can think of that disliked him.” Hemphill said he and Williams spent most of their time together on the baseball diamond, where Williams was competitive, but never arrogant.

While he took his time between the lines seriously, it was his dedication to community outreach that became his calling card and part of what made his family a Sammamish fixture despite moving to the growing area only four years earlier.

Along with his schoolwork at Skyline and spot on the football and baseball teams, Williams spent much of his time helping shape some of the same organizations that now define the spirit of community in Sammamish’s quiet neighborhoods.

At the time of his death, neither his own friends at Skyline nor those he made through the various groups he was part of could comprehend how the loss would affect them.

But in time, and with the help of a community determined to keep his memory alive, everyone has found their role in that fight. And some of those Joshua worked closest with during his life have found a way to honor his legacy through their own burgeoning future.

A volunteer army

Once the initial shock and grief of their son’s death subsided, Phil and Debbie Williams knew they wanted to preserve their son’s memory, if only in some small way.

Their initial plan was to host a small golf tournament – maybe 30 participants who knew Josh and the family – and possibly raise a small amount of money to give back into the community. In the 11 years since it began, the Joshua P. Williams Foundation has become so much more.

Bruce Wortherspoon, a longtime friend of the Williams family who relocated to Sammamish with them and a handful of others in 1997, said he had experience in fundraising and hosting charity events and, along with other friends and community members, helped put together the first golf tournament in Josh’s honor only months after his death.

The foundation is modeled after another founded by former Seattle Supersonics and University of Washington legend Detlef Schrempf. However, rather than selecting a beneficiary from a pool of applicants, proceeds raised at the annual golf tournament go to the same Sammamish-based groups Josh was so involved in during his own life.

“He was very involved with the Boys and Girls Club, had done a few fundraisers for Friends of Youth, had attended Camp SAMBICA, had friends in Young Life and was one of the first mentors for Athletes for Kids,” Wortherspoon said. “We decided to create a foundation in his memory and support organizations that played a role in his life and helped shape him.”

Josh’s friends and classmates initially helped staff the event and when they moved on, younger siblings with ties to the Williams family took on the role. As the event has continued and grown, each generation of young people in Sammamish and especially at Skyline have taken on the tradition of volunteering at the event.

Hemphill, who now serves as Chairman of the golf tournament, and the rest of the Class of 2004 have finished college, gotten married and begun families of their own and many of them continue to return to the event both to share old memories and create new ones.

Timeless legacy

While both Wortherspoon and Williams said the initial hope was to provide the community with a gathering place to grieve, the mission of the foundation has evolved over the years and has moved beyond the pain through giving.

“It has moved from an outlet for grief to a true celebration,” Wortherspoon said. “Both of Josh and of community.”

Since it began 11 years ago, the Joshua P. Williams Foundation has gifted more than $1 million that has helped construct the EX3 Teen Center, continue to provide training and support for prep athletes who give their time as mentors for disabled youth, provided operating costs for new and improved facilities at Camp SAMBICA, continued the vibrant faith-based programs for youth in Young Life and offered a consistent source to keep troubled and abused kids off the streets through Friends of Youth shelters.

“We never imagined it would be anything like this,” Williams said. “It is a day of celebration and fun.”

For Hemphill and the circle of friends who considered Josh among their closest confidants, the tournament and foundation have become one of the highlights of the year and a much anticipated opportunity to exchange freshen their bond.

“The day of the event is like our second Christmas,” he said. “I firmly believe Josh’s passing kind of cemented those relationships for people.”

And while the event and foundation initially provided solace for family, friends and a community that lost a loved one too soon, in the decade-plus since it has ensured a lasting legacy of service in his honor.

A group of volunteers looks on as Phil Williams speaks before the foundation’s annual golf tournament. Many of them, in college or high school, did not know Josh personally, but have come to be part of the event through ties at Skyline and through other organizations in the community. JOSH SUMAN, ISSAQUAH-SAMMAMISH REPORTER