For the past seven years, Wali Muhammad has made a living doing something he loves – talking to people and making the community a better place – through the company he started, Happy Family Community Services (HFCS). The mission of HFCS, according to its website (www.happyfamilycs.com) is “to support happy families as they grow happy children, for happy families build strong, positive, happy communities.”
Wali – who lives in East Haven with his wife, Tahnee Cookson, and their children Enaji and Afiya – spent several years working in other industries, including business, .coms, and corporate, before realizing his true calling.
“When you do something that is easy and you love it, it ends up not being work,” says Wali. “Every day I get to go to an office that is an extension of my house where I coach employees, clients, and staff on where they want to be and talk to them to figure out how to get there from a coaching, mentoring, and advisory perspective. I get to talk to people all day, every day and that’s my job. I don’t feel like I go to work when I go to the office.”
Wali’s current office is a far cry from where he started seven years ago, which was less than 300 square feet in Branford. Within the first year, he gained several per diem employees, eventually moving into a larger space in downtown Branford that he shared with Penner Law Firm.
While the shared office provided more space, it still wasn’t convenient for the majority of Wali’s client base who had to take a 40-minute bus ride from New Haven. Since starting his business, he had traveled into New Haven several times, noticing a space on State Street.
“I drove by the place twice in six weeks and thought I’d look into it,” says Wali. “I took a picture but forgot about it. Then I went into New Haven for sushi, stopped, and looked through the window. I saw the size and thought the space would be amazing.”
HFCS now has expanded to 3,000 square feet with dozens of employees, including five part-time staff and many per diem staff. One of the part-time workers is his wife, which he enjoys for several reasons. Cookson is now the director of operations.
“It’s great because if she didn’t work with me, I probably wouldn’t see her,” says Wali. “People get to see the interactions of a married couple and ask, ‘How is it working with your wife?’ or ‘Don’t you get on each other’s nerves?’ I love my wife enough to have her be there with me every day. From a childcare perspective, that is more valuable to me than having a job outside the agency and creates freedom and flexibility to raise our children the way we want to raise our children.”
One of Wali’s goals as a husband, a father, and a business owner is to “continually try to impact our environment.” For several years, the family has hosted a young girl from the Fresh Air Fund, and for the past two years, they hosted a boy and a girl.
“We get to see how our children interact with them and it gives them a teaching moment about sharing the things they have,” says Wali, whose family also recently fostered a child. “It has fostered a friendship and they communicate with each other throughout the year. They spend a week with us each summer and do different activities.”
One of the activities they share with the kids from the Fresh Air Fund is Happy Family Day Camp, which is run through Happy Family Community Services, the non-profit that Wali launched two years ago. The day camp runs in six weekly sessions with the 2017 sessions running from June 26 to Aug. 4.
Happy Family Day Camp focuses on fun and fitness. Wali, who is a volunteer coach for his son’s East Haven Youth Football team, hopes to bring the skills he has learned as a coach and as an athlete to his campers.
“My goal when they come to camp is that they’re in better shape than they were at the beginning of week,” says Wali. “Using formats I’ve learned as coach and athlete and some kind of test to measure strength, speed, and agility, campers can see how they progress over the week or the six weeks of camp. It’s important for everyone to see that the best competition is internal.”
With six weeklong sessions of camp to plan, Wali is also looking for others to join him in sharing their skills as well and welcomes volunteers. His goal is to encourage movement and expose campers to different activities.
“I’m always looking for people to volunteer their time to do something athletic,” says Wali. “A tennis coach, football, track, basketball, anything that could help change the perspective these children have.”
While Wali now can’t imagine doing anything else, he once dug his heels in against being in the social work field. His parents, three brothers, and two sisters all work in social work. His parents also adopted four children so Wali grew up in a family with 10 children.
He spent many years working in different fields, including working at Ann Taylor in New York City. When he was laid off from the company in 2010, he was hired at United Healthcare in Connecticut. Having gained five hours from not having to commute anymore, Wali decided it was time to continue the family tradition.
“I stopped fighting it and with the five extra hours, I needed something to do so I started a company going into the family business,” says Wali. “I asked my wife about it and her first question was, ‘Did you talk to your brother?’ who had a five-year-old company.
We had a conversation about what I was doing, how I was starting and I asked him for his framework. My father helped him start his company.”
Wali worked full-time while starting his company and had just completed his MBA. When naming his company, he wanted a name that was non-denominational, non-racial, and had no bias. After coming up with Happy Family Clinical Services, he went on to create the logo, which features a black adult, a white adult, and a grey child.
“The logo is about how we, as adults, see the world as black and white, right and wrong, yes and no, but we live in the world with children and there’s always a maybe, always a grey area,” says Wali. “In between the right and wrong, there’s the grey area of children so we have to remember to embrace the grey because we may not be right or wrong.”
Wali’s goals for both companies are to impact the community. This past Thanksgiving, the began a “Buy One, Give One” event where people can buy a Thanksgiving dinner and HFCS would donate one to someone in need. Many people chose to donate their bought meal so two meals were donated and in the end, 11 turkeys and hundreds of pounds of sides were cooked.
“The food was delicious and it was very tiring as I did most of the cooking myself, but the end result was phenomenal,” says Wali, who noted he learned that next year they will host the event earlier or later as many people already donate on Thanksgiving. “We want people to know one person can impact multiple people by doing a simple act. We are building a tradition around giving back to the community we serve.”
For information or to volunteer with Happy Family Day Camp, contact 203-208-9254 or firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.happyfamilycs.org. To donate, visit www.generosity.com/sports-fundraising/happy-family-day-camp.