Sipping coffee at Broadway Cafe in Westport, Traycie Williams mentions that he used to live in this neighborhood.
For a while it was an apartment near 36th and Main streets. Later he was homeless in the same area, “basically one of the people you see standing on the corner begging for money.”
It’s a bit jarring to hear the clean-cut Williams talk matter-of-factly about the gritty details of his past, including many run-ins with the law.
These days, however, he is a success story. He was the only MCC student to make the 10-member top tier of the 2017 All-Missouri Academic Team. He’s also vice president of the Phi Theta Kappa chapter at MCC-Blue River in Independence, holds a 3.8 GPA and on May 17 will cross the stage at MCC’s commencement.
He has been taking mostly evening classes at the MCC-Blue River campus since 2012. By day, Williams, 36, drives a recycling truck for AAA Disposal Service in Buckner.
But all that changes this fall, when he plans to start work on a bachelor’s degree in dietetics — human nutrition — at the University of Central Missouri. He has become a believer in the paleo diet: He buys meat directly from a farm and, like grass-fed cows, doesn’t consume grains.
Eventually he’d like to earn a doctorate and become “an expert nutritionist, researcher and healer.”
Little of this probably seemed possible to Williams as a hardscrabble kid with five siblings and no dad around. Born in Lexington, Mo., he grew up “all over” the state plus several years in Florida.
At his house the utilities were often off. The children didn’t always have clean clothes. His nickname in middle school was “Food Stamp,” he says.
He got on the wrong side of the law early on. In Richmond, Mo., when he was 6 or 7, he was hauled off to jail in handcuffs. In the middle of the night, he and a friend were using rocks to beat on a bank’s drive-through window.
“The cops were more or less in our lives a lot in those days,” Williams says.
He would end up spending a collective five years of his 20s behind bars, including four stints in prison. Everything he was arrested for — burglary, tampering with a vehicle, stealing over $500 — was “directly related to getting drugs,” he says.
A drug deal that devolved into gunfire turned out to be the turning point for him.
“This is getting old,” he remembers thinking. “I’m going to die if I don’t stop doing what I’m doing.”
A couple of weeks later he was back in lockup, this time for 22 months, but it would be the last time. He was assigned to a behavior modification program. And he took two classes through a State Fair Community College program for inmates.
Released and back in Kansas City at age 29, he got a job “riding the back of a trash truck” and lived for a while in a 12-step recovery house. His first day sober had been Jan. 30, 2009, in county jail, just before his final haul in prison.
He had spent about 15 years, starting in his teens, as a “serious” addict.
He enrolled at MCC-Blue River in 2012 because it was fairly close to his job in Buckner. Buckner is also where the divorced dad’s two sons, ages 3 and 13, live with their moms. Williams lives with his girlfriend and her two daughters in Kansas City North. To keep up with child support, he works a second job doing home improvement projects.
The MCC-Blue River campus is “probably the closest thing to roots I’ve ever had. I love that school. I love the people there. I can’t think of any other place where more people have cared about me.”
Being involved in Phi Theta Kappa, the academic honor society, has given him leadership opportunities. He also praises the campus Academic Resource Center.
Williams is often in the ARC doing homework, math learning specialist Sherri Peister says. But when he has a question, he doesn’t want the answer, “just a little nudge in the right direction.”
If he doesn’t understand a math problem, for instance, “he will do it over and over again until he understands it — he expects perfection of himself.”
Peister started tutoring him before knowing anything about his background. “When he became comfortable enough to share, I was surprised,” she says. He had just seemed like a “hard-working, positive, outgoing student.”
He’s also goal-oriented and a leader, Peister says. He would schedule algebra tutoring workshops with her on behalf of the class he was taking and “energize” his classmates to show up.
MCC-Blue River communication instructor Dee Mathison, a PTK co-adviser, says Williams’ back story is “incredibly empowering to other students who have lost their way.” She has seen him mentor others.
She calls him “a really smart guy” and a “phenomenal” writer.
“Not only did he not have the advantages many have in their younger years, he rose above challenges that usually destroy people,” Mathison says.
“He’ll say, ‘I didn’t understand the Yellow Brick Road until someone showed it to me.’ In his mind, the Yellow Brick Road is education. So as soon as he found that road, he was able to head down it.”
Williams will probably live on campus at UCM in Warrensburg this fall, which will mean giving up his truck driving job. He’ll get a job on campus. He has already been accepted into UCM’s honors college.
The move will be “a major lifestyle change. It’s not without anxiety for me,” he says.
To Mathison, Williams’ biggest challenge back in the day was not that he got off track. It’s that he had no support when he did. At Blue River, “all of a sudden he’s got people telling him, ‘Hey, you can do this, you can make these grades.’ ”
“Traycie is a student who pulled himself up, literally,” says Cheryl Winter, a Blue River academic division chair and PTK co-adviser.
“He realized he had two choices, to live or die, and he chose life. Enrolling at Blue River gave him confidence that he could do it and have the support to be successful.”