Being Miss Mitchell to Youth in Foster Care

When Crystal Williams was 6-years-old, her baby brother died from SIDS and was discovered in his crib by her two sisters. A short time later, Crystal wrote this poem:

It was a day I’ll never forget.

It started off like any other.

My brother, a beautiful sight, his small,

  brown hands that gripped me tight.

His jet black hair as black as night.

His eyes glistened like the sun and were just as bright.

I remember Lena and Carla as they ran to his crib,

  Lena with his bottle and Carla, his bib.

They were ready to spoil him as they always did.

Carla lifted him from the bed and she looked at him.

His small brown hands were cold with no grip and the

  color of the ocean matched the color on his lips.

His eyes, once like the sun were now as mysterious as the moon,

  with a small, cold body returning to me soon.

The wound of this loss can be bandaged by time,

  but it will never erase this day from my mind.

Shortly after her brother’s death, Crystal’s mom brought her and her two sisters to Atlanta. They didn’t have family connections there, and Crystal ended up in foster care, first living in a group home and eventually a foster home. Crystal aged out of the system at 18, graduated at the top of her class and went to Emory University.

Crystal had an independent living coordinator named Miss Mitchell at the time who encouraged her along the way. One day, Miss Mitchell called Crystal and said,  “Hey Crystal, I’m looking for this book of quotes and poems and inspirational things and I know you like poetry, so do you know of anything?”

Crystal replied, “Oh, that’s funny, because I want to write something like that, but I don’t know of anything like that.”

Miss Mitchell said, “Okay, well send me an invoice.”

Crystal was now confused. Crystal shared, “For me, I’m like, what, 22, I was young and so I’m like, ‘Send you an invoice for what? This book does not exist. Did you not … did you miss the memo, like it doesn’t exist.’”

Crystal continued, “It’s fascinating to me that Miss Mitchell believed in something that I didn’t even see in myself. I didn’t even see or believe or know to believe that I could accomplish that type of goal. To have someone see gifts in you, to see talent in you and then be willing to invest in that is very powerful for any young person, regardless if they were in foster care or not. It’s just powerful to have.”

Not only did Crystal go on to write that book, but she has become a powerful foster care advocate and spoken word artist, sharing her story and her poetry across the nation in order to inspire others to get involved.

What Miss Mitchell did for Crystal was simply see the gift inside her, and use one moment in time to draw that gift out of her. For better or for worse, so many of us are who people have told us we are. Speaking that vision into the lives of foster youth is one of our greatest opportunities as advocates and as foster parents.

Here are four ways we can fan into flame the gifts we see in foster youth:

    1. Notice areas of gifting in hidden places. Finding a child’s gifts can be easier with things like sports, music or academics. However, a lot of kids display gifts that you have to be a little more deliberate to notice and to mention. For example, you might have a child who shows a great deal of compassion to other children around them or a kid that has an engineering mind that loves figuring out how things work. Simply saying things like, “I love how you are kind to people who are having a hard day” or “You always work so hard to figure out how things work. You amaze me!”    
    2. Look past behaviors to see bright spots. Tom Lukasik, a former foster parent and long-time foster care advocate with 4KIDS of South Florida encourages foster parents to look for “approximations of good behavior.”  So, while a child may not sit perfectly at the dinner table and put their napkin in their lap, you may notice that they did sit down this time without sticking their hand in the food and actually used a fork instead. Praise those things. They don’t always feel like progress but they are!
    3. Create moments that reinforce a child’s gift. When Miss Mitchell asked Crystal for an invoice, she took an ordinary phone call and created a monument of sorts in Crystal’s life that she will always remember. That was the day Miss Mitchell didn’t just tell Crystal she believed in her, she demonstrated her belief with her actions. Do you have a child that likes to cook? Why not pay them a modest allowance to cook once a week for the family. Does your child love to write stories? It’s never been easier to have things professionally printed and bound. Help her produce a book – even if it is just one copy. Show them that you believe in them.
    4. Lend your connections to kids in care. When we give ourselves to kids in care, we are not only giving them our experiences and our gifts, but also the experiences and gifts of every single person we know. One of the greatest gifts you can give to a youth in foster care is a connection that will help them to achieve their dreams. Many of the people you interact with on a weekly basis do not currently invest any time in foster youth. It’s not that they wouldn’t be willing – they just haven’t been provided a simple enough way to do so. However, when you approach them with an opportunity that comes with a name, great things can happen. Do you know a kid that loves computers? Maybe your programmer friend would be willing to spend a little time with them. What about your teen that has taken an interest in photography? Would your photographer friend allow them to come along on a shoot or two and carry equipment?  These exposures to your network could make a huge difference, both for a child and for your friends.

Every one of us understands just how difficult it can be at times to see ourselves clearly. Most of us can point to someone in our lives who took the time to let us know what they saw in us and it made all the difference. Everyone needs someone to do that for them. You are in a unique position to provide that vision to every child you touch. All of us need a Miss Mitchell. All of us can be a Miss Mitchell.

NOTE: An extended version of Crystal’s story is featured in episode 9 of CAFO’s Foster Movement Podcast. It’s available for download from iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher and Overcast.

This article first appeared in CAFO’s regular Foster Movement column of the Fostering Families Today magazine (May/June 2018 issue).  To see a preview of the magazine and learn more about how you or your organization can subscribe to this great resource, click here.