Inspiring the Next Generation: Why Mentoring Students Matters (Chicago)

Ombudsman Chicago Staff Member Johnell Williams at his desk.

Defender Guest Columnist, Johnell Williams

Since my first day at Ombudsman four years ago, I have done my best to educate and inspire our students. As an Assistant Dean in the School Support Office and a Sports Director, my philosophy is to appreciate what we have, and tackle challenges that come along the way. I have children of my own, but the kids at Ombudsman are like my extended family. One of the things I love about my job is the ability to inspire others, primarily the students I work with.

Growing up in a small town in Mississippi, I truly appreciated my community. When people say “it takes a village,” it definitely rings true for me. Without the support system I grew up with, who knows where I would be today. As a teen, I moved to the South Side of Chicago with my mother and attended Kenwood High School. I know how rough it can be growing up in the city, where crime is prevalent and mentors were few. Luckily, I had mentors to help guide me.

Following high school, I attended the University of Tennessee and was then drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where I played for three years. After experiencing health issues, I left the NFL and started coaching football at Englewood High School. I knew then that this was my calling. I didn’t let my health become an obstacle, and in a way, it became a motivating factor to help others. In working with teenagers, I found that mentorship was my passion, and I was proud to see some of those who I had coached go on to achieve success. Thanks to my wife, I then took the next step in my service journey, to continue mentoring at Ombudsman.

When I started my role at Ombudsman, I knew it wouldn’t be easy. Trying to keep the kids on track, coming to school and participating was a challenge. But, the more I grew into my role, the more the students saw me as someone they could rely on. To this day, I help students out when they can’t afford a school uniform, or ensure they get to school on time and are prepared. I also check in with our staff, to see where I can help them help our kids.

One of my biggest accomplishments was starting the sports program at Ombudsman. As the athletic director, I co-manage the football, volleyball and basketball teams – two of which have won championships. The sports program has been successful, as it brings students together, instills discipline, and provides them with a positive extracurricular option. The success of the program has garnered recognition, especially during orientation day. Many incoming students ask about our sports programs, which motivates me to do even more with Ombudsman.

The greatest benefit of my work is seeing our students succeed. I was recently visited by a former student, who while at Ombudsman, had financial difficulties and problems at home, which was something I could relate to. I did what I could to help to ensure she received the education she deserved. Today, she is a college graduate, has a great job, and owns a home.

My goal is to do what’s best for the students, and find an effective medium to communicate with them. You can only do so much, but leaving a good impression on our youth and serving as a positive influence in their lives is priceless. Mentorship truly does go a long way.

Johnell Williams is an Assistant Dean and Sports Director at Ombudsman Chicago West.

About Ombudsman Chicago

With four locations at 2401 W. Congress Pky., 7500 N. Harlem Ave., 6057 S. Western Ave. and 10928 S. Halsted Street, Ombudsman Chicago is a Chicago Public Schools Options School Program that helps students who have dropped out of high school re-enroll and earn a CPS district diploma. To learn more about Ombudsman Chicago, visit