I first met Stanley Williams, the high school senior, prom king, football player, and soon-to-be college freshman in a BBQ joint in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. I was there to talk to him about his life growing up in foster care. In the first ten minutes of speaking with him, I learned that Stanley Williams has been in foster care longer than he has not. I learned that he was separated from his younger siblings eight years ago and has not seen them since. I learned that it makes him sad that he wouldn’t know what his brothers and sisters look like now. I learned that two months before prom and graduation, his biological mother passed away. I learned that he carries a great deal of guilt for not initiating a phone call to her to check on her the day before.
By all accounts, the young man who sat before me should be broken, lost, hopeless. But the young man before me was not broken. No, the more I spoke with him, the more I saw just how solid, determined, and hopeful he really is.
Stanley’s early days in foster care were not overly successful, that is, until he was placed with an exceptional single foster mother, named Detra Jett. Stanley says that moving to Detra’s home opened his eyes, “I began to sit back and observe. Detra taught me a lot”.
Detra never treated Stanley as a foster child; she treated him as her child. This made Stanley finally feel stable. “Detra’s was comfortable. Her kids made me feel comfortable too. Her son played football. I played football. We connected”. Detra is an advocate, a voice for all of her foster children. She is in the stands at their sporting events. She is at the school for their academic meetings. She is a driving force behind their success. To celebrate Stanley and her other son’s high school graduation, she took them on a Caribbean cruise. "I've been fostering for 13 years. Stanley is my first to go to college. He has given me so much more than I could ever give him", Detra shared.
Necco's Ernest Lockett has worked with Stanley for four years. He is proud of his boy who is now a young man. Ernest shared, “Stanley is like a sponge. He takes it in and processes it. He actually allows people into his circle. He knows his resources and he uses them. All of our kids are in the business of self-preservation. But, Stanley is the kid who will keep worker’s business cards and names, just in case he needs to reach out to them in the future for something.”
At the end of July, Stanley Williams will be heading to Hocking College on an ETV Grant and is eligible for the HEMI Scholarship. He will play football for Hocking as running back and linebacker. I sat looking at Stanley and thinking of the cards he was dealt. I asked him how he juggles great grades, sports success, and now the pressure of college. He gave me one powerful response. “I work every day to better myself and to be the best. There is no time for breaks or distractions or self-destruction. I’m going so hard, I can’t stop. And I don’t plan on stopping any time soon. I know my mom is in heaven looking down on me. I know she wants me to keep going to make her proud.”
I thanked Stanley for his interview and I walked back to my office with a smile on my face. My favorite poet and favorite poem came to mind: Langston Hughes, “Mother to Son”.
*Well, son, I'll tell you:
Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
It's had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor-
But all the time
I'se been a-climbin' on,
And reachin' landin's,
And turnin' corners,
And sometimes goin' in the dark
Where there ain't been no light.
So, boy, don't you turn back.
Don't you set down on the steps.
'Cause you finds it's kinder hard.
Don't you fall now-
For I'se still goin', honey,
I'se still climbin',
And life for me ain't been no crystal stair. *
Life for Stanley ain’t been no crystal stair. But he’s still goin', he’s still climbing. And he's not stopping any time soon.