Support in the Stands

Crystal Williams
June 28, 2013

My foster family helped me find myself and adopted me when I was 25 years old.

My heart was racing. Sweaty palms. This was the last game of the season and of my entire high school career.  I was about to be on the football field in front of hundreds of people, dancing along with the rest of the Diamond Dolls flag team and the Mighty Seminoles Marching Band. The drum majors gave us the call and the percussion started up. It was time!  I marched onto the field, smiling and dancing. The crowd roared!

I danced my heart out that night. Hundreds of people clapped for us, but one group of people stood out to me: My foster family.

For 12 years of my childhood and teens, I was in foster care. I lived with my foster family throughout high school, and they adopted me when I was 25 years old. They are the only family I’ve ever known, and I am so grateful for them.

Of the 26,000 young people who age out of foster care, many leave the system without the necessary supports and services that will help them to become successful adults.

That was very nearly me—but thankfully, it wasn’t and that’s why I’m sharing this story.

That’s also why I’m involved with Success Beyond 18, a national campaign aimed at paving a better path for youth transitioning out of foster care and into adulthood. The campaign has three goals: Extending foster care from 18 to at least 21 and doing it right, ensuring that young people are actively involved in planning their lives, and providing quality oversight for this older population.

I believe strongly in these goals, especially the “doing it right” part for children at each stage. The services provided to an 8-year-old in foster care must look different from those provided to an 18-year-old in the system. Older youth need developmentally appropriate supports and services that provide autonomy and opportunities to learn from their mistakes so that they are prepared to make adult decision when they become adults. Unfortunately, however, many systems still have a “one size fits all” approach to the supports for foster youth.

Every young person, no matter their background, should have an active role in planning their future.  Some of that is being connected to the greater community.

My foster family always encouraged me to get involved in school and in church. Thanks to their encouragement, I played all kind of sports and joined all types of clubs in an attempt to discover my niche. I joined the puppet ministry at church at a very young age. At school, I was on the tennis team, played basketball, danced, and joined the BETA club and National Honors Society (just to name a few!).

You could even say I was doing too much in high school. But I was really busy for a reason. 

Young people growing up in a stable home often have wonderful, endless opportunities to try new things at a young age to see what they like to do, and by the time they are in high school, they have some awareness of what they’re good at and what they want to pursue.

For me, I needed to do that exploration as a teenager. Though I was a little late to the game, my foster family provided that for me by letting me explore all kinds of interests and activities as a teen. I used that time to find myself.

Many of my peers in foster care who didn’t find a stable family never had that opportunity to learn what their passions were—an opportunity that has helped me understand my goals and dreams, and how to pursue them.

As I stepped out on the field that last game of high school, I could feel the love and support of the family who saw me as their own daughter. I knew that even if I messed up, everything would be okay, because they were people in the stands cheering for me.

Every young person deserves that supportive crowd in the stands. The Success Beyond 18 campaign is the platform to raise that awareness.  With smart recommendations to reflect the needs of youth ready to transition into a healthy adulthood, we can address this immediate need and challenge current policy and practice.

Crystal Williams entered foster care at the age of 10 with two of her sisters.  She aged out of the foster care system when she was 21 years old, but continued to receive post-secondary educational services until the age of 23.  Because Crystal moved from home-to-home and homeless shelter-to-homeless shelter with her biological mother before entering foster care, Crystal was really behind in school.  Upon entering foster care, Crystal experienced stability in school and an opportunity to connect to community organizations.

Crystal graduated from Emory University in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in English/Creative Writing and Theater.  A poet and artist, she believes in giving back to the community by encouraging youth to pursue their passions—specifically, by using theater to inspire young people to engage with the arts as a means of self-expression and exploration.  Crystal is the director of Big Theater Company for Big Student Ministries at World Changers Church International.  Crystal uses the arts to increase awareness about foster care and encourages her peers to get involved and community partners to connect.

Crystal has been a member of the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative Young Fellows program since 2008.  The Young Fellows are a group of young people currently or formerly in foster care who have gained knowledge and skills at the Jim Casey Initiative Youth Leadership Institute and spend time identifying, discussing, and sharing solutions to issues that affect young people transitioning from foster care to adulthood.