The sight of Yuri Williams, 43, strolling the streets of Los Angeles' Skid Row in a Spider-Man costume is strange, but for locals, a familiar one by now. He's typically greeted with smiles, handshakes, and hugs. Sometimes he takes photos with residents; other times he passes out food, clothing, or sleeping bags.
"I'm here to ... spread love and compassion daily," he says. "That's my mission."
Williams is a Los Angeles native who runs a nonprofit organization called "A Future Superhero And Friends," which helps the homeless, sick children, veterans groups, single moms, and low-income families — "anybody in need of uplifting and help," he says — by donating food, clothing, toys, toiletries, and, perhaps most importantly, time.
Video by Stephen Parkhurst
While the physical goods he gives away to those in need are helpful, Williams says that what he does best is make people smile. Costume or not, Williams says he's doing what he can to make a difference in his community.
And though he knows he's not going to be able to save the world from all of its ills in true superhero fashion, he knows that small acts of kindness can have an outsize effect — especially during a pandemic.
Williams, who lives in Long Beach, near Los Angeles, is a single father who has worked as a juvenile correctional officer for more than two decades. His mother, Lynda Hubbard, who worked as a juvenile probation officer for 30 years, inspired him to follow her down her career path.
"I used to go to work with her when she worked at juvenile hall," he says. "That's why I followed in her footsteps, because of the impact that she was making on the community."
It's hard to overstate how much of an impact Williams' mother has had on his life. She kept him out of trouble as he grew up in South Central Los Angeles, an area rife with gang violence. She kept him focused on basketball and academics, ultimately helping him navigate high school, and later earn a college degree in psychology at California State University, Los Angeles.
He used that degree to get a job in corrections, where he's worked ever since.
His job also allows him to work a unique schedule: Three 16-hour shifts in a row, followed by four days off, which he dedicates to his nonprofit. During the coronavirus pandemic, Williams was able to use some of that time to offer a lot of help to a lot of people.
Over the past year or so, including during the pandemic, Williams has helped feed thousands of homeless people, donated hundreds of toys to local hospitals, and delivered groceries to dozens of families and food banks. He has even managed to attend — virtually, of course — numerous children's birthday parties, all in costume, according to estimates from his friend and collaborator Juan Carlos Alfaro, who runs an organization called Creative Flow Art in Long Beach.
"The guy just doesn't stop," says Alfaro, which is why he decided to nominate Williams as a Homegrown Hero. "It takes a lot of work to get up on a Saturday, go somewhere and dress up after a whole week of work, doing it for free, and asking for nothing — it takes a very special person."
A Future Superhero And Friends is a small outfit run out of Williams' home. The organization has a handful of board members, but Williams says he does most of the legwork himself. While the nonprofit is only two years old, Williams has been donning costumes and hitting the streets to offer a helping hand around his community since 2009.
He began after his mother passed away from cancer — an event that affected him deeply. He fell into a depression and decided to start helping out in his community as a way of processing his grief. It was around that time when he started going to places like Skid Row and hospitals to see what he could do to make a difference, he says.
Williams uses costumes, like Spider-Man, as a way of easing people's nerves, particularly when dealing with the homeless. "You'd never see Spider-Man walking around the streets," Williams says, "so I approach people in a calm way and you get a smile out of them. It breaks the ice, and now I can dig in and see what I can do to help."
He may be most helpful when he's simply making human connections. Williams says that one of his most cherished memories occurred on Skid Row, when he was able to make a difference for an elderly homeless man who had recently lost a family member in 2019.
"There's an older man called Uncle Felix. He's been on Skid Row for a while now," Williams says. "His brother passed away a week before last Thanksgiving."
Williams met, and was able to help, Uncle Felix. "I used to take pictures with the homeless," he says, and he happened to have a photo of Uncle Felix's brother. "I was able to see [Uncle Felix] on Thanksgiving — I gave him a turkey dinner plate, and I gave him the picture of his brother. And he broke down. He was very thankful because he didn't have any other pictures of his brother."
Williams currently has two Spider-Man costumes, a Deadpool costume, and a Kylo Ren outfit. He's also saving up to buy a "Mandalorian" costume, a character from the recently released "Star Wars" television series.
The costumes help him break the ice. Once people let their guard down, he helps any way he can, whether it's by taking photos and talking with children, serving hot meals to the homeless, or handing out toys at hospitals. Often that has meant he foots the bill.
At first, he funded his charitable ventures out of his own pocket, which meant he was paying for costumes (which can cost thousands of dollars), transportation, and much of the food and other items he was giving away. While he still puts forth some of his own money and uses his home as an office space, his nonprofit is now mostly funded through donations, either through campaigns on social media networks, GoFundMe, or his Patreon account.
Williams does hope, however, that he'll soon be able to get grants and other assistance from the government to help him finance and expand his organization. In the meantime, he says he's going to keep pushing — spending his own money and his free time trying to help others.
Because Williams says he doesn't have a specific goal, agenda, or purview when it comes to helping his community, it's difficult to measure just how successful he's been or how much of an impact he's made. But his friends and colleagues say that the impact is obvious when you see him out on the streets, laughing with veterans or playing around with neighborhood kids.
"When we go out to an event," says Alfaro, "and I see him, and he's just talking to people and he's just greeting everyone and he's high-fiving and people are just loving him."
When asked whether he feels like he's accomplished what he's set out to do, Williams has mixed feelings.
"I've made an impact and helped people, but I don't think [I'm at] the level that I want to be," he says. But he's working on it. He's already visited all 50 states twice, he says, to meet with children and homeless communities. Now, he says, he's all but addicted to serving others.
Ultimately, Williams hopes to spend all of his time hitting the streets and helping out. But he needs another five years or so of saving up until he can retire from his day job. After that, everyone can expect to see a lot more of him in and around their communities.
"I'm just trying to hurry up and retire so I can do it full time," he says. "I'm on my way."
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