Michael Williams remembers watching his mother pack up the family station wagon with toys.
He remembers how she filled it to the brim, the hundreds of gifts all wrapped and stacked so high that he and his two older brothers had to squeeze just to fit inside.
They drove from their home in Glendale to an orphanage just across the Mexican border. His father put on a Santa suit. His mother handed out the gifts to rooms full of excited children.
He was only four or five at the time, but he remembers.
“I recall looking at kids who were my age or not that much younger than me and understanding that these kids don’t have a family,” said Michael, who now lives in Manhattan Beach with his wife, Shannon, and their two children.
“I remember the looks on their faces just from getting stuff and having people do something for them ... And I saw how much happiness it brought to my mom.”
As Williams and his brothers got older, his mom began helping women and children locally—delivering gifts and supplies to Los Angeles-area homeless and domestic violence shelters. It never stopped, he said. She was always giving.
“It was just who she was,” said Williams. “She didn’t make a big deal about it. She didn’t talk about it. She would just do it. If it weren’t for us coming home and seeing the office filled to the brim with various wrapped-up gifts or different things, we wouldn’t even know.”
And, as it turned out, most people didn’t know.
When Joan Marie Williams died of lung cancer in 2014, it was Michael who told everyone about the charitable things she did.
“At her funeral, Michael was giving a speech about all the things Joan did so unselfishly—about her going to Mexico and to the homeless shelters,” Shannon said. “The room was speechless. Nobody knew that Joan had been doing that over the years.
“Right away, I thought, ‘We have to continue this. We are going to continue her legacy.”
And they did.
Some things just happen. And Joan’s Wish List, the foundation that Michael and Shannon founded in Joan’s name, was one of those things.
Since Joan was always working to help women and children, the Williams knew that Joan’s Wish List would follow that lead. They decided it would fulfill the "wish lists" of women and children who are victims of domestic violence—as well as help fund the organizations working to free them from abuse.
But where to start? While Michael is a Harvard graduate and successful trial lawyer, he had never before spearheaded a nonprofit. Neither had Shannon, a Texas native who works in property management.
You could say it was Joan who led the way.
The first place Shannon and Michael targeted was Good Shepherd, LA’s oldest domestic violence shelter. It was a place where, unbeknownst to them, Joan had been supporting since the 1970s, volunteering with a group of women who made regular drop-offs. They discovered the connection only after a woman at the shelter recognized Joan’s name.
“These women would spontaneously drop by with clothing and back-to-school supplies,” said Kathleen Buczko, former director of institutional advancement at Good Shepherd. “These weren’t donors that cared about their names being on walls or about buildings being named after them. They were really about making a big difference in the lives of the women and children in the shelter.”
The difference has been made.
In that first year, Joan’s Wish List raised more than $90,000 for Good Shepherd. The windfall helped build a new curriculum for the shelter’s elementary school as well as providing new security cameras, youth soccer clinics, and iPads pre-loaded with educations apps.
And then there were the Christmas presents, which included everything from body lotions to computers (all requested by the women and children on their personal wish lists).
“It really is a tribute to the power of an idea and all the community coming together to support something,” Buczko said. “It can really be transformational. It can be transformational to every family that comes through that program.”
If you build it ... it will grow
Since its founding, Joan’s Wish List has grown from a two-person operation to a thriving nonprofit with more than a dozen volunteers.
The annual gift-giving fundraiser initially held in the Williams back yard (and then later at Barsha wine shop in Manhattan Beach) will this year be held at Big Door Studios in El Segundo, an indoor-outdoor space with capacity for nearly 450.
Items for the silent and live auction are set to include one-week luxury home stays, personal chefs and in-home spa treatments. The event will include food provided by local eateries, an open bar as well as DJ and dancing.
This year’s event will benefit Rainbow Services, a San Pedro-based organization that provides shelter and support for women and children striving to break free from domestic violence. All of Joan’s Wish List’s prior fundraising recipients will also continue to receive support, both after the event and throughout the year.
“The idea wasn’t to be one and done,” Shannon said. “The idea was that we would continue to grow each year so that each year we could continue to support the organization of the year prior and add a new organization as well.”
So far so good.
In its four years, the foundation has given almost $300,000 to organizations including the Westside Children’s Center; Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (where funds were allocated to CHLA’s Holidays From the Heart Program to help financially strapped families); and 1736 Family Crisis Center, a Hermosa Beach shelter for domestic violence survivors and runaway or homeless youth.
“One in four women—and more importantly, their children—is a victim of domestic violence,” said Buczko, who now serves as a consultant for Joan’s Wish List. “What that means is that those children have a distorted vision of what a loving relationship is. It creates is a generational cycles of violence.”
Bucsko said Joan's Wish List helps "to fill in the gaps," left after federal funding is exhausted. That might mean providing on-site advocates who speak Farsi or building a new playground for young families struggling to maintain a sense of normalcy.
“We asked the moms and the children to come up with a list of things that they would want,” Shannon said. “Then we asked the organization: Is there something that you really need, that you could use funding for or help with?”
The Williams hope their annual fundraising event will become as big of an extravaganza as other South Bay charity events including Walk With Sally’s White Light White Night. Whereas up until now, the Williams have relied on family and friends for support—this year they’re turning to the community.
And what would Joan think of all the hubbub?
“She would probably be pissed off that we’re giving her so much attention,” Michael joked. “She was just a humble person.”
Then, he added: “But, without a doubt, on the inside she would be extremely proud and humbled that we’re able to help so many people.”
To find out more about Joan’s Wish List or to buy tickets for the annual fundraiser & silent auction, go to joanswishlist.com.
IF YOU GO:
Joan’s Wish List Annual Signature Event Benefiting Rainbow Services
Where: Big Door Studios, 114 Sheldon St., El Segundo
When: Oct. 20, 6 to 10 p.m.
Tickets: $95 and up (includes open bar, hors d’oeuvres, silent auction, DJ & dancing and other festivities)