Candice Williams was 19 years old when she died in a car accident while driving to a dentist appointment in July 2003. But 16 years later, the teen's memory lives on through her parents, Theresa and Ben Williams, who serve their community — and an annual Thanksgiving dinner — to carry on her legacy of helping others.
"She was just a people person — she loved people," Theresa Williams told TODAY Parents. "Nobody was too good for her. She started out in school doing hair, and she would reach out in the community to the seniors who needed their hair done or didn't have anyone in their home. On Sunday evenings, if we had leftovers, she'd ask if she could take leftovers to seniors or single mothers, and she'd drive people around to the store and make them feel wanted and comfortable."
Williams, who lives in Mansfield, Ohio, says the first holiday season after their daughter's death was difficult for her and her husband. The next year, the couple decided to honor Candice's memory by starting the Candice Williams Helping Hand Foundation and serving Thanksgiving dinner in their community to those in need of company and a good meal on the holiday.
"I went to my family and told them what I wanted to do and they were willing to help," Williams recalled. "This will be our fifteenth year, and every year they come and help serve and stay and eat and enjoy."
But the Williams' Thanksgiving feast isn't the only function of their foundation.
"We've given away four used minivans to some single mothers that never had a vehicle," Williams said. "We go out in the community and wash windows and rake yards for the seniors. We assisted a family this year who lost everything in a fire. We take seniors to doctors appointments and anywhere else they need a ride."
"We're both retired, but it seems like we work harder now than when we were working," Williams joked.
The Williams' volunteer work is made possible by donations from the community and the dedication of their volunteers. And, while the couple has hosted an Easter dinner as well and are contemplating adding a Christmas dinner event to their to-do lists, it's the Thanksgiving feast that's been the most well-attended event.
Last year, Williams says nearly 1,000 people came to the community center where the meal is held to eat a Thanksgiving meal. And, delivery volunteers transported more than 200 meals to those who were unable to leave their homes. This year, Williams says they're "expecting that amount, or more."
"It's a mix of anyone who doesn't want to be at home, seniors, the homeless — anyone that just wants to do something different," explained Williams. "Some of them are less fortunate, and everyone just shares love with each other."
In her 15 years of service, Williams said she's learned an important lesson.
"There is a need," she said. "It's rewarding to see the people come together and not worry about preparing or fixing a meal and to know they know there's going to be a hot meal there for them."
"I think Candice is loving it — just seeing all the people come together to have a good time on that day," Williams continued. "Some of them would never have had anything. ... We'll keep doing it as long as we see the need. As long as people show up, we're going to be there for them."