Nicole “Nikki” Williams – Homeowner, Mother, Social Worker, Volunteer, Student, Community Advocate – adds Scholarship Recipient to her many titles.

Twelve years ago, Nikki Williams walked onto the Habitat for Humanity construction site as a volunteer. As a hardworking mother of a then 10-year-old daughter, Nikki had no idea that this single act of giving back would propel her and her family towards long-term stability and the achievement of higher education.

“I guess I didn’t know how poor I really was,” Nikki said. “I just wanted to be a volunteer and help others. Then staff started telling me to apply. I never thought we were the ones in need.”

Nikki at the time was working as a social worker for people with disabilities and struggled to provide for herself and her daughter. Raised in northeast Portland in a family with 21 children (seriously!), the importance of owning a home was instilled in her by her parents with the idea that permanence would eliminate uncertainty. Until Habitat, this was a distant goal. Nikki and her daughter moved into their new home in north Portland in April of 1998.

“They say that it takes three generations to elevate families out of poverty,” she said. “I’m counting myself as generation number one!”

Their new home was perfect for them, with the exception of the neighborhood. Nikki and her daughter quickly noticed that there was a constant stream of suspicious activity on the street, and the city was doing nothing about it. As a new homeowner, Nikki knew she would need to fight to make her neighborhood safe. She immediately founded a neighborhood watch along with other homeowners on her street to clean up the neighborhood. She contacted the police every time she witnessed suspicious activity, even going so far to contacting the mayor. Her story is part of a local documentary called: Northeast Passage: The Inner City and the American Dream. The result was that she was successful in making change and the neighborhood became safer.

“I have pride in my home, and I don’t have the flight tendency,” Nikki said. “This is my neighborhood.”

Because Nikki owned her home and her mortgage payments were affordable, it gave her strength to be able to leave an abusive relationship and change career paths to work in construction. She no longer was constantly stressed about her living situation and was able to make other life changes. Unfortunately, after becoming permanently disabled on the job, Nikki credits homeownership to keeping her family from becoming homeless and allowing her to start over after her injury. Her disability prevented her from returning to construction. Because Habitat was the mortgage lender on her home, Nikki was able to arrange making payments and attend school at the same time. She decided to attend college and earned an associate’s degree in criminal justice from Portland Community College.

“It never bothered me that I didn’t go to college, but once I was back in school it felt right,” Nikki said. “As an older student, the discipline is there, and I saw my education as an avenue to help others leave poverty.”

Nikki’s stability and hard work opened the door for her to further her education. She was one of the 120 recipients of the Ford Scholars Program Scholarship, out of 4,354 applicants. Based on grade point average, financial ability and community service, the scholarship provides 90% of unmet college costs for community college students ready to transfer to a four year school. Nikki is now working towards her bachelor’s degree in social work at Concordia University and has plans to take it all the way to the top to earn a master’s and doctorate degrees.

“My dream is to use my education to help women of color get out of bad situations, no matter if they can pay or not,” She said. “Earning my education is the only way of doing the level of good that I want to do.”

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