Today, we are revisiting a conversation with former foster youth, Crystal Williams.
What feelings, emotions and thoughts are your adopted or foster children experiencing? Co-hosts Lynette Ezell and Tera Melber sit down with special guest, Crystal Williams, who grew up in the foster care system. Discover what this artist, advocate and public speaker has to say about her 15 years in the foster care system.
Announcer: Welcome to the Adopting and Fostering Home Podcast. Whether your family has been on this journey for years, or you’re just getting started, we’re here to support and encourage you along the way. And now your hosts, Lynette Ezell and Tera Melber.
Lynette Ezell: Welcome back to the Adopting and Fostering Home Podcast. I’m Lynette Ezell along with Tera Melber, and over the years Tera and I have learned the significance of hearing from and learning from adoptees and former foster children.
It just helps to give us insight and perspective into the feelings, the emotions, the thoughts that our children may be experiencing. We’re so happy today to be joined in the studio by Crystal Williams, and Crystal grew up in the foster care system. Welcome.
Crystal Williams: Thank you. I’m glad to be here.
Tera Melber: Crystal’s an artist, an inspirational speaker and an advocate. And she has over 15 years of experience in the foster care system working with foster and adopted youth, foster and adoptive parents, case workers, advocates and key decision-makers across the state of Georgia and nationally. That’s impressive, Crystal.
Crystal Williams: I know. I’m a little nervous.
Tera Melber: Yeah, I’m excited. I’m excited. Crystal, tell us a little bit about your story growing up in foster care.
Crystal Williams: Absolutely. I’m originally from Memphis, Tennessee.
Tera Melber: Oh, I love it. Those are my people.
Crystal Williams: Yeah, originally from Memphis, where the barbecue is great. And my biological mom, and my sisters and I, we all live there, and we pretty much lived with our biological family most of the time. So instead of us having our own home, a lot of the times we were staying with relatives or living with friends and that type of thing.
I actually don’t remember a time growing up outside of foster care, having a car or having a home that was ours, until we moved to Atlanta. So in Memphis, my mom would leave us home alone a lot. She struggled with her own things, trying to make ends meet for her family.
She actually was the product of a blind mother. So her mother went blind when they were very young. So it was four of them. And my grandmother went blind while my mom was probably around, I’m just going to guess and say like 10 or 12.
Lynette Ezell: So she was young.
Crystal Williams: Very young. Very young. My mom pretty much raised herself. She and her sisters fended for themselves in that time. My grandmother did the best she could and so my mom started off with a rough beginning. Whenever I tell this story, I like to just emphasize the fact that it’s a lot of times the situations that happen that land a child in foster care, have generational roots.
They’re not just stemming from some bad decision, which it is, it is a bad decision. But there’s so many routes, and always emphasizing the fact that the enemy is trying to take out families, trying to take out individuals from the beginning.
He’s sowing those seeds before I was even born, before my mom was even born. He was trying to sow seeds that would hinder our family.
Tera Melber: Wow, that’s interesting. Wow.
Crystal Williams: Yeah. My mom, she had her first child … She actually had twins. My older sister, she actually was a twin, and her twin passed away very young. My mom’s now dealing with that, all of the struggles she’s having, plus the death of one of her child and of course, I wasn’t born yet.
But by the time I was born, my mom … the two of us … She had my older sister and I, and she was still trying to make ends meet, and she ended up having another child, my baby brother, who also ended up passing away. My mom experience the death-
Lynette Ezell: Gosh. Tragedy. Yeah.
Crystal Williams: Right, the death of two of her children.
Lynette Ezell: So much trauma.
Crystal Williams: And for me, as an adult, I think back on that, I’d never really processed and put pieces together until I became an adult of the trauma that my mom actually experienced. I know that foster care was difficult for me. But when I think about the trauma, my mom experienced. My mom was never in foster care as a kid, she probably should have been.
But she was never in foster care as a kid. And she had her struggles that she dealt with and so here we are a family now. My mom had three … She had another child after my baby brother passed away. She had three girls, two of her children that passed away.
She’s thinking to herself, what am I going to do to try to make ends meet for my family. The decision that she made actually changed the trajectory of our entire lives, which was a decision to come to Atlanta, from Memphis. The decision was, you know, basically, we had heard one of my aunt say, Atlanta has clean streets.
My aunt would always come down and play the lottery in Georgia, and she just loved Atlanta. We heard all these great stories, and my mom decided, okay, to kind of start over to get us on a new path, I’m going to move the family to Atlanta.
We moved here to Atlanta without any support systems. Now, if you remember, in Memphis, we had family. I mean, no one was, super, super well off, but at least we had the connection as family and friends. But coming to Atlanta, there were no connections.
We basically ended up bouncing around from homeless shelter to homeless shelter, and that’s when we ended up in the foster care system.
Tera Melber: Wow. So how old are you at the time?
Crystal Williams: I was 10. I was 10. My older sister was 13 and my younger sister wasn’t even born yet when we moved to Atlanta.
Lynette Ezell: Wow. What happened after that, you’re at the homeless shelter and that’s when you were removed. So from 10, until, you said that you aged out of the foster system. Were you in different foster homes throughout? Did you go back and forth to your mom?
Crystal Williams: Our story was a bit different. We were in the homeless shelters for probably several months. I warn you guys, my sense of time, is a little off.
Tera Melber: Oh, sure.
Crystal Williams: Thinking back on that-
Lynette Ezell: Right. We understand.
Crystal Williams: … so I’m like, between the ages of 15, and 20 something happened. Basically, we were in homeless shelters for a period of time and then we ended up getting our own apartment. So the homeless shelter helped us get our own apartment. And-
Lynette Ezell: Your mom’s trying to move forward?
Crystal Williams: Exactly. Exactly. She’s trying to move forward. She’s doing the best she can. We actually got our own apartment. My mom, she would leave us home alone a lot in Memphis and so here in Atlanta, she apparently had gotten a job that was overnight.
We were in that new apartment. The caseworker from the homeless shelter, who was helping us get furniture and food and stuff like that comes and realizes these children have been home alone for two, three days. She’s a mandated reporter, she has to say something. She reported it, we initially went into a group home setting. Now this was-
Lynette Ezell: All three of you, with your toddler sibling.
Crystal Williams: My little sister was actually placed somewhere else because of her age.
Lynette Ezell: Oh, okay.
Crystal Williams: Because of her age, she was placed somewhere else, but my older sister and I were replaced in a group home, which was again, divided by age. I was a little rebel. I screamed until they allowed me to sleep by my sister. They allowed me to sleep by my sister.
We were in that group home for, I would say, I don’t know, a couple of weeks to a couple of months. I mean, again, hard time remembering the time. Then we were placed into a foster home. And that is actually the reason why I said my story is different is because that’s actually the only placements we had.
A lot of children who come into foster care, bounce around from house to house. I have friends now, who had 30 plus placements when they were in foster care. That’s very rare, especially during that time, ’96, ’97 time, when we came into care, that time period, I mean, young people had multiple placements.
We moved into that home, and that’s the home that we stayed in for the duration of our time in care. I’m still connected with that family now, I was actually adopted at the age of 25. By that family, amazing family, I just got off the phone with my adoptive mom and my adopted dad yesterday, inviting them to my graduation, I graduate from grad school tomorrow.
Lynette Ezell: Congratulations.
Crystal Williams: So just having that support, having that family that I can reach back, and actually my biological dad called me last night. He’s just like, “Hey, I heard from your sister…” I have those connections now. There are still some that I’m trying to form like, my younger sister, she was actually adopted by my maternal aunt, very young and so we lived in different states.
I’m in the process now of rebuilding those connections. I have sisters and brothers that my dad has, where we don’t have the same mom. That I’m trying to build those connections and so it’s definitely a process of being totally content in this position that God has put me in as a former foster child as an adopted child, but also feeling that my family is fluid.
It’s not just my adoptive family, whom I love dearly, they are amazing. But also, my biological family is a part of who I am and so it’s exciting for me. I spent Christmas with them this year, in Memphis, and it’s exciting for me to be able to see, wow this is that cousin that they always said, I look like. This is that aunt. It’s definitely a process of rebuilding at this time.
Tera Melber: That’s so important, because we’re seeing it in our home as well, we’re having to reach across the ocean. But it’s so important, I’m noticing as we go into young adulthood.
Lynette Ezell: It is.
Tera Melber: My dad did that as well, from the Memphis area, too, and just trying to put the pieces together of my siblings and who looks alike, and who has hands that match.
Crystal Williams: Absolutely.
Tera Melber: Those sorts of things. And those are so important to bring those pieces together.
Lynette Ezell: They really are. We’ve found as well, that our children who do have some communication with their biological families have had a healthier perspective. Our children who have not had that same opportunity, really are always seeming to be searching.
We want to help them search and find as much as they possibly can and recognizing to, we’ve said often you won’t fully feel restored, none of us will on this earth until the day that the Lord takes us home, and we’re with him and then we’re fully restored.
But any piece of the puzzle that the Lord gives us while we’re here on this earth is a gift and a treasure. And that you’re not defined by all this stuff, from your beginnings, that you’re defined by who you are in Christ, and really rooting them in their identity and their foundation there. How has your faith helped you walk through all of this stuff?
Crystal Williams: Yeah. My faith is everything. I mean, just realizing even when you tell that story about, it’s our identity in Christ and all those broken pieces in the past, but it’s amazing how God uses the broken pieces. How he uses even that. Even when I personally make mistakes, or someone makes mistakes, and don’t …
I don’t know what to do with this, this big mess that is in front of me, God knows what to do with it. A lot of the children in foster care are dealing with the mistakes of other people.
Tera Melber: Yeah, victims of circumstance. Right.
Crystal Williams: Right. They’re dealing with the mistakes of their parents, of their grandparents, those generational curses, and that’s what they’re dealing with. It’s like, even in the midst of that, God, he’s so able to take that and make it into a masterpiece.
And so for me, I have found that my faith and being able to communicate that through my poetry, which is what I use, has been freeing. Sometimes people will hear me speak on a stage or I’ll do poetry, and I’ll cry. They’re like, “Oh, she must be sad and broken from her past.”
Most of the time is tears of joy and it’s me thinking about how God, like you picked me out of millions of people and decided that you were going to place me somewhere different and you were going to … Even though it was difficult, it was hard, you’re going to place me in a place where I could form all these connections that I otherwise would not have had an opportunity to have.
It’s just mind blowing, to think about the level of precision that God has and the attention to detail and I’m totally honored. Every time I get an opportunity to share my story or every time I get an opportunity to talk to young people. That’s my heart as well. I love teenagers.
I feel that opportunity to speak back and reach back and share my faith with younger people and let young people know that God is more than able to bring us all the way through. Yeah, my faith is definitely everything. I use it whenever I’m communicating. I share the depth of what God has done and how he is able to make a masterpiece out of broken pieces.
Lynette Ezell: He does it every minute of every day for all of us, I tell you. Well we’re talking today with Crystal Williams, who grew up in the foster system in Atlanta. And just continuing this conversation with her. I do have a question because Tera and I just work with foster children.
We work with advocates for foster children. There’s a lot you know, we don’t know. Would you mind sharing about a time or maybe something that was done for you, that blessed you or gave you a dose of encouragement when you were in the foster system, maybe your middle school years.
Those trying middle school years anyway, when you’re being uprooted. Just something that sticks out in your mind that was done for you that just gave you hope?
Crystal Williams: I think for me, I hear a lot of stories and not just youth in foster care, just young people in general, saying that they’ve heard people say that they would never make it. Someone told me I’d never make it, they told me that I’d be just like my father.
Lynette Ezell: Oh, yeah.
Crystal Williams: That’s surprising to me. It’s surprising that someone would say something like that to a young person. Personally, I always had people who were encouraging me and who saw things in me that I didn’t even see or believe. As a young person growing up in poverty first, before foster care.
Growing up in poverty, there was no time to practice sports or get involved in music. There was no time for that, there was just survival. Coming into the foster care system, even though I was in middle school, I started off at elementary school, but middle school, high school was the majority of my time.
Even though I was that age, I wanted to explore stuff. Usually you do that with your child, when they’re young, you put them in dancing, you realize that’s not kid. That’s not your gift baby. Let’s put you in basketball. You play that game with your child early on and try to find out what they’re good at.
Then when they get in that you just encourage them. They form this level of expertise in that particular thing. Well, I didn’t have that luxury as a young person growing up in poverty. When I got into foster care, that was the first time that I was able to do that exploration.
Even though my friends had been involved in this stuff for five, six years. This is the first time I could explore and so I tried everything. I played basketball in middle school. And basketball is a big deal in my family. Well, she’s older than me, but she’s the youngest of my adoptive parents, biological children. Her name is Amber. She is basketball queen. And so she-
Tera Melber: No pressure.
Crystal Williams: Right. I wanted to be like her. I’m like, “oh, yeah, I’m join the basketball team.” Not my thing. Definitely not my thing. I stumbled around. My dad has videos of me running down the court, like, “Oh, my God. Oh, my God.” I’m like, “I’m so embarrassed, burn those videos.”
Tera Melber: That’s leverage for your dad.
Lynette Ezell: Prerogative of a parent.
Crystal Williams: Right. That wasn’t my thing. I tried tennis, because tennis team had short skirts,
Lynette Ezell: Cute outfit.
Crystal Williams: Definitely. So try that. That wasn’t my thing. And I tried oratory. So I signed up for an oratorical contest, where we had to pick a topic on the Constitution and we had to write a speech. Then that was the first part then the second part was, you had to do a speech from memory. I did that, and I was good.
Lynette Ezell: I bet.
Crystal Williams: I was good and I was like, “This may be my thing.” Then I got involved with that, and just started to gravitate towards the arts and opportunities to speak. My family supported me all the way even when I joined the dance team. I was the one of the flag girls with the band.
They were in the stands, they were in the stands, and they were supporting me. And I remember-
Lynette Ezell: A whole new world for you.
Crystal Williams: Right. I remember my dad, he … Because we always had a lot of kids in the house like a lot of kids. I remember one game, it was halftime. There was tons of people in the stands. I remember after the game, he came up to me, he was like, “I’m so mad. I’m so mad. I went to the concession stand with one of these kids and I missed it. I missed the halftime.”
But for me, I mean, it was just having people in the stands, having people supporting my gift, and even supporting me when I stumbled and so that to me was just powerful to have that. I think every young person in foster care needs a whole rally of people in the stands rooting for them.
And cheering them on and encouraging them to keep moving forward in whatever it is that God has called them to do. And even to encourage them in the stumbling around until they get into that place where God has called them.
Tera Melber: Right, because as we said, it’s a whole new world for them. They’ve not had any choices before. I know with my children, it was with one of mine. It was just amazing to see that, just to be able to choose your clothes. Things that we take for granted.
Crystal Williams: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Tera Melber: Your older sister, was she with you in the same placement all through?
Crystal Williams: She was.
Tera Melber: But you were adopted by this family-
Crystal Williams: I was.
Tera Melber: … when you were 25. So does she have the same relationship?
Crystal Williams: She did not. So I love talking about my sister. I love talking about her because she was so different. Literally, I always say, if she was here doing this interview with you, you would be like, “Did you all live in the same house?” Yes, we did. Yes, we did.
She was a bully, which I always make fun of her. She wasn’t really a bully, but she was a bully. But the thing is, there was this dynamic of my older sister had been my mother. She had been my mother, she had raised us, she had fought for us to get food.
She made sure we were clothed, even beyond her taking care of herself. I didn’t know until I was an adult that my sister couldn’t read on her eighth grade level when she got into foster care. She was in eighth grade.
Lynette Ezell: Who has time for that.
Crystal Williams: Exactly. She was raising kids, and so no, she didn’t get adopted by that family. She clashed with my foster mom a lot. She was a teenager, she was already … She had stuff she was dealing with things. She wasn’t as vocal as I am, she was more of an introverted person. She still is very introverted. She didn’t get involved and mesh with the family like that until later.
Lynette Ezell: Her role had been relinquished.
Tera Melber: She’d never been a child.
Lynette Ezell: Right-
Crystal Williams: Exactly.
Lynette Ezell: … didn’t have that opportunity to be a child. We’ve seen that a lot.
Tera Melber: We see it a lot.
Lynette Ezell: It is so hard, because you want to say it’s okay for you to be a teenager and not have to be caregiver. But it’s almost like but these are my people, and I’m going to take care of them and so it is a clash.
Crystal Williams: This is the only part of her identity that she could own. She could own that piece to free me up to be creative and you go out and do. And I own this piece of being the mother. I own that so don’t … When I come in a foster home, don’t take that away from me. You have to-
Lynette Ezell: It’s her identity.
Crystal Williams: Exactly. So with her, she definitely had a different experience than I had. Even if you have siblings in a placement, their interaction in that home and their experiences will be different. They will handle things differently. They will vocalize things differently.
My sister and I were very different and in the way that we meshed into the household. But now, she’s very creative. She’s a mother, she is an entrepreneur. She has five gorgeous children. They’re all on the honor roll.
Lynette Ezell: That’s awesome.
Tera Melber: Oh, my goodness. She was just made to be a mother.
Crystal Williams: Yes, I love my babies and I was over there this past weekend and the youngest one she was like, “Aunty, I’m in gifted.” That’s so sweet.
Lynette Ezell: Oh, wow.
Tera Melber: I love that.
Lynette Ezell: That’s amazing.
Crystal Williams: She takes education seriously and you can think back on her experience. My adopted dad actually used to sit her at the table and make her read the newspaper to him aloud after school for about an hour. When someone else will walk in, he would tell she could stop so that she wouldn’t have to be embarrassed.
That she couldn’t read. Well, but he would make her read it for an hour. Now that is affecting the way that she raises her children, her children read. Next to the youngest child wants to start a Facebook Live of her reading to children who don’t have people to read to them.
Lynette Ezell: Oh, how cool is that.
Crystal Williams: I’m just like this is amazing to see how God-
Lynette Ezell: Only God Lord does that.
Crystal Williams: … uses that.
Lynette Ezell: That’s right. That’s right.
Tera Melber: Crystal, thank you so much for joining us today. You can find more information about Crystal’s ministry in our show notes at crystallwilliams.com, and you can also purchase her book called Stronger and Inspirational Journal. We look forward to talking to you some more.
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This fund provides grants to Southern Baptist ministers and missionaries who are adopting. By giving financially, you are able to be a part of seeing many children become beloved sons, and daughters. For more information visit sendrelief.org.