Tawana Williams, born without arms, gave her testimony on MannaEXPRESS’ television show in 2009. We caught up with her shortly after Christmas, when she was facing a new and wholly unexpected challenge.
Tawana Williams speaks slowly, then pauses to retrieve the right words. This, she says, is the biggest challenge she’s ever faced—recovering from a “mini-stroke” that seized her ability to speak, which she calls her passion, her reason for living.
The words sound like exaggeration at first. This 48-year-old motivational speaker casually recites her list of challenges as though they’re another woman’s past; she’s even grateful for them, she says, because they’ve made her who she is today:
● Born without arms, because her mother was prescribed the drug Thalidomide during pregnancy. Thalidomide, a sedative, caused severe birth defects in thousands of children–one of the worst medical tragedies of our time.
● Trained to use her feet as arms, through years of intensive therapy her mother arranged after sending a desperate plea for help to John F. Kennedy. The president answered, directing Tawana to a hospital in Durham, North Carolina, where she was treated at no cost.
● An object of relentless teasing and rejection. A victim of gang rape at gunpoint during a home invasion. Raped by her stepfather. Tawana grew up wondering if God even existed. If He did, why would He let her life turn out this way?
● A “follower” who caved in to someone’s suggestion that she try crack cocaine—leading to 10 years of addiction. During that time Tawana had an abortion, bore a child, and blew all of her money on drugs—money her boyfriend Toby Williams had left her for bills before going to fight in the first Gulf War.
The turning point came one night in 1991, when Toby came home from the military and Tawana had to face him. That night, she hit “rock bottom” and cried out in prayer. “God, if you’re real,” she recalls saying, “you’ve got to help me. Because I can’t do this anymore. I want you to do one or the other: kill me in my sleep, or deliver me from crack cocaine.”
The next morning, Tawana says, “It was over. I was free.”
She and Toby married soon afterward, on Christmas Day 1991. A few years later, the man she says loves her unconditionally urged her to tell her story publicly. Tawana Williams’ career as a motivational speaker began with years of free events, mostly in churches, then turned into a source of substantial income and fame. She says she’s done some 15,000 speaking engagements since then—going everywhere from drug-rehab centers and prisons to huge sales conferences and national television.
Her message is simple: “If He did it for me, He can do it for you.” Tawana, who says she’s always been a positive person, pushes a “no-excuses” lifestyle—whether she’s preaching to drug addicts or corporate America. Her grandmother planted the seeds of her message, telling her at 4, “T, you must not have needed arms, because God didn’t give them to you. Nothing is missing. If you don’t have it, then you don’t need it.”
When MannaEXPRESS caught up with Tawana soon after Christmas, though, she was puzzling over the latest development in her life. On November 27, she suffered a stroke and was hospitalized near her home in Wilson, North Carolina. The first day in the hospital, she says, she couldn’t remember her name or date of birth. She couldn’t identify the president of the United States. She did, however, recognize her 7-year-old grandson Jaylen, whose encouragements became a source of strength.
She improved rapidly from there—regaining most of her memory. But the stroke, which she believes was stress-induced because of “drama” in her life, has so far stolen her ability to be a world-class communicator. She has canceled all of her speaking engagements for January.
Since she’s gone home to recover, Tawana has spent time reflecting. “Right now, I’m just really trying to focus on listening to God,” she says. “I’m trying to hear my own head.”
She thinks about the many things God has done in her life, and she is encouraged that she’ll speak again. “God has been restoring my life since the day I was born,” she says. “The doctors said so many negative things about me—that I’d never live to be two weeks old. That I’d never be able to walk. That I’d never have children.”
Tawana started walking at 2. She uses her feet as hands; she even figured out how to change diapers with her feet. She can type 35 to 40 words per minute, and when she appeared on MannaEXPRESS’ television show, she signed her book—Unarmed and Dangerous—with her right foot, then used the same foot to gracefully hand the volume to her host.
“God is an awesome God,” she says. “All things are possible with God.”
These days, Tawana is thinking about another statement she often tells her audiences: No test, no testimony. Tawana faced severe tests from the moment she was born. Now she faces another.
“This,” she says, referring to the stroke, “is the hardest fight I’ve ever fought.”
So what is she going to do?
“You put your boxing gloves on and you fight,” she says. “Fight.”
Read more about Tawana Williams at tawanawilliams.com.