Erin Williams ’09: Inspired, and inspiring
Fifty major reconstructive surgeries in 24 years.
A lifetime of doctor’s appointments and operating
rooms. A world full of “cruel, judgmental people.”
Welcome to Erin Williams’ world.
Williams was born with Treacher Collins
Syndrome, a rare disorder characterized by facial
deformities—in her case, an underdeveloped bottom jaw, cheekbones and ears. It occurs once in every 10,000 births. The odds, though, were stacked
particularly heavy against Williams. The disorder
is genetic in nature, but no one in her family has it;
hers was caused by a genetic mutation.
The condition took a heavy toll from the very
When she was 4 months old, her unusually
small airway caused Williams to go into full respiratory and cardiac arrest. Doctors told her family
she likely wouldn’t live through the night, and if
she did, she would suffer from severe neurological
They were wrong. Still, Williams would live
with a tracheostomy tube for the next 21 years—
not to mention surgeries to correct scoliosis and to
reconstruct her eyes, ears, chin and cheeks.
Many might bemoan the cruelty of such a life.
Williams celebrates its spirit.
“I wouldn’t change anything I’ve been through,”
she says. “It’s who I am. It’s a part of my life and
has made me stronger.”
She was a recipient and keynote speaker at TU’s
Foundation Scholars luncheon in 2008. She also
received the 2008 Patients of Courage: Triumph
Over Adversity Award from the American Society
of Plastic Surgeons.
It has defined her in other ways as well. Consider her career.
With a degree in special education, she teaches
second- and third-graders with severe learning
disabilities at Jacksonville Elementary School in
She loves her students not only for who they
are, but for the progress they are making under her
care. And much of that, she says, comes directly
from her own background.
“I love what I’m doing. How many people can
say that?” Williams asks. “I’m passionate about
my job, and I think a lot of that has to do with
where I come from. I constantly encourage my
students and let them know
they can do it. It’s been a
rewarding experience to see
where they started and how
far they’ve come.”
Then there’s Kevin.
Specifically, Kevin Richmond, her fiancé. They were
classmates at Pine Grove
Middle School. They took a
few classes together, signed
each other’s yearbooks, nodded in the hallways and went
their separate ways for high
Then, in 2005, Kevin stumbled upon Erin’s MySpace
page and contacted her. A
friendship bloomed, and then
… something more.
“I went through most of
my life feeling like I would
never fall in love because I
looked different,” Williams
said. “I never knew if I was
going to find that special per-
son who could understand what I’ve been through
and what I might have to go through in the future,
who could look beyond what’s on the outside.
Kevin is an incredible person, and I’m lucky to
have him in my life.”
Kevin proposed in June 2009. They are plan-
ning a June 2011 wedding.
As inspiring as her story is, Williams turns to
others for inspiration. Her family, her friends, her
doctors, her students—they are the folks who keep
“They inspire me to wake up every day and do
what I do and try to make a difference,” she says.
“The teachers I had growing up, the kids I work
with—they inspire me and got me to where I am.
And I think I was put here to inspire others, too.”
And what does that message boil down to?
“Everyone has a story to tell and a reason to
tell it,” she says. “I hope that people will always
follow their dreams. Good things do happen to
people who work hard and believe in themselves.”
Erin Williams ’09,
recipient of a TU
scholarship and the
2008 Patients of
children with severe