Sunderland student's journey from depths of despair to global recognition

William Kellibrew and Elizabeth Hill became the first students to take part in the Friendship Pact between Washington DC and the City of Sunderland.
William Kellibrew and Elizabeth Hill became the first students to take part in the Friendship Pact between Washington DC and the City of Sunderland.

A University of Sunderland graduate has used his traumatic childhood to help him become a global leader for human, civil, victims’ and children’s rights.

William Kellibrew from Maryland in the USA has devoted his life to helping others, to raising awareness of domestic violence and to supporting child victims.

William Kellibrew IV at age 15; Da'Vone Kellibrew at age 11 (William's brother); and Manyka Gaither at age 13 (William's sister).

William Kellibrew IV at age 15; Da'Vone Kellibrew at age 11 (William's brother); and Manyka Gaither at age 13 (William's sister).

At 10-years-old William witnessed the horrific murder of his mother Jacqueline, and 12-year-old brother, Anthony, in their family home.

Jacqueline’s partner, who had only recently moved out, took out a gun.

The tragedy led to WIlliam suffering from depression and saw him struggle to cope throughout his teenage and young adult years, often contemplating suicide.

After working in the restaurant and service industry for nine years, William decided to try his hand at a college education and began to study at the University of the District of Columbia.

William as a child.

William as a child.

He soon began to thrive, forging ahead to become a two-time student government president.

William then began to speak openly of his past traumatic experiences, telling his story at first to school children in a bid to raise awareness and bring something positive from something so horrific.

William said: "My teens were the worst. I, literally, felt suicidal each morning I woke up.

“My grandmother Delores modelled resilience and held on for the family.

"It is in large part due to her love and support that I started to see the opportunity in life and the humanity that was possible for my own life.

"Going back to school after the murders at age 10 was extremely difficult for me and my siblings, especially after never attempting school without my mom, but I tried to walk in the classroom and put on my game-face and act like nothing ever happened.

“It was three years later in my first therapy session that I began to see what hope looked like through the eyes of an intern social worker."

In October 2011, during National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, William was recognised by the White House as a ‘Champion of Change’.

His story of tragedy to triumph has been featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show and his worked endorsed by presidents of the United States.

William was also chosen to represent the Friendship Pact that was created between Washington DC and the City of Sunderland.

He came over and studied Business and Management at the University of Sunderland, becoming the first student to do so under the friendship agreement

The 41-year-old said: “We didn’t know that we were going to be extremely popular, but we were on the news and in the papers during the first few weeks and became sort of American celebrities in Sunderland.

“I forged long-lasting friendships in Sunderland. I used to play on the Sunderland tennis team and I still keep in touch with my former team mates.

"I was also selected to an office of the Student Council. I still remember standing outside the Murray Library, handing out leaflets and I was so grateful to get elected."

Now a global leader and an international advocate for human, civil, victims’ and children’s rights, he travels the world as a beacon of hope, showing just how you can bounce back from adversity.

William has continued to return to Sunderland over recent years, forging and sustaining relationships he built during his first visit.

He sits on the Sunderland-Washington steering committee and maintains a passion for the University and the city.

William has also been nominated for a Social Impact Award at the British Council Alumni Awards, which are due to be held this week.

He said: “Witnessing the killings of my mother and brother destroyed me and took away my dignity, but with support from my grandmother, family, and key support systems in place, I eventually was able to rebuild my life.

“The single-most important thing I have ever done in life is to strengthen my own capacity to bring humanity into spaces where trauma and violence breathes and lives.

"Trauma is the germ of the 21st Century. We cannot often see it. It spreads like bacteria. In my work, I use public health approaches such as value-based and trauma-informed practices to engage others who have been impacted by trauma and violence.

"As a kid, I always had dreams of being a doctor or a helper. Never in my wildest dreams did I believe that I would be considered to be an inspiration globally to those who are struggling each day."