One of the first things you notice about Crystal Reed is her confidence. Small in stature, she walks proudly and speaks gently but surely as she tells her story.
This is a mom who’s been through a war and has no intention of turning back.
The past five years have been a painfully slow but steady journey: Out of a bad neighborhood on Chicago’s South side. Out of relationships that put her life in danger. And out of the heroin addiction that was destroying her and her family.
On Dec. 6, 2005, a couple of weeks before her 45th birthday, Crystal received her high school diploma. The ceremony at the Rockford Rescue Mission was the payoff for almost five years of faithful work with several Mission tutors – in particular, Paula Kloster.
As Paula embraced Crystal at the podium, she whispered, “Through all of this time, it’s been you and me.”
The moment seemed light years from their first meeting, when Crystal came to Hope Place in January 2001.
“She was quiet,” Paula remembers, “but her attitude screamed. Nobody was going to tell her anything.”
Still, she sensed God’s hand on the relationship, even then.
“My mother’s heart felt her mother’s heart,” Paula says. “I knew God could take that attitude and turn it into determination, perseverance and persistence.”
Crystal’s transformation had begun in summer 2000, in her South Side apartment. A single mother of six – but also a heroin user for 10 years – she looked at herself in the mirror and said to herself, “Enough.”
“People had been telling me, ‘You need to stop doing this. They’ll put you away for a long time. I remember looking in my bathroom mirror and crying out, “Lord, I’m sick and tired.”
About this time, Crystal and her four children still young enough to live at home were evicted from their South Side apartment. As they sat on the lawn with their belongings, a van pulled up. It was Crystal’s brother, James, who lived in Rockford and was coming for a surprise visit. He’d had no clue his sister had just been evicted.
James persuaded the family to come with him to Rockford where, he told Crystal, she could get help. She already had washed out of a recovery program in Chicago, and would try another unsuccessfully when she first got to Rockford. A counselor did tell her she needed the kind of long-term help the Women’s Life Recovery program at the Rockford Rescue Mission could provide.
Problem was, the Mission’s program couldn’t take Crystal’s two older children, who were 12 and 13 at the time. She would have to place them in foster homes while she went through the center’s residential program. The decision was agonizing, but she realized she was out of options.
Crystal remembers feeling frightened as she walked with her two youngest children from WAVE to Hope Place in late December 2000, but her heart told her everything was OK. The doors closed behind her and she sensed a comforting voice saying, “I’ve got you now.”
“I always knew God was out there, but I think God and I got closer when I came to the Rescue Mission,” Crystal says. “God began to work on my heart and speak to me.”
God also reassured her about placing the two older children in foster care: “I was sitting in bed by the window, and that same voice came to me. It said, “Don’t worry. They’ll be all right.”
Meanwhile, Crystal was beginning an 18-month process in the Women’s Life Recovery program. She knew this was no quick fix.
“I said, Lord, I want to crawl through this,” she says. “I needed to get some people out of my life. I had to get rid of some things. Being in here broke me all the way down and built me back. Sometimes, they could hear me crying all the way down the hall.”
She remembers angrily telling her parenting counselor, Rita Frank, “You can’t tell me how to raise my children.”
“We clashed at first, but she taught me how to trust and forgive,” Crystal says. (Tragically, Rita would die in a car accident in 2004.)
Crystal graduated from the recovery program in June 2003. She immediately tried to regain legal custody of her two children living in foster homes. The judge told her to wait. But four months later, at the next hearing, he did assign custody back to Crystal, congratulated her and said keep up the good work.
Her family reunited, Crystal next found an apartment and then a job at Asta Care Center. Next on her list was her high school diploma. In 2004, she and Paula worked up a contract. Crystal would come to Hope Place for tutoring on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons for the next year. She had to call if she couldn’t make it. If she missed three times with no phone call, she would be out.
Crystal didn’t break that commitment – even to the point of working only part-time and sacrificing financially so she could reach her goal. She also kept the contract on her refrigerator as an incentive.
Now the diploma will hang on Crystal’s bedroom wall, where she keeps cards and other mementos of her journey. She’s made a better life not only for herself, but also for her children.
“I’ll be standing in my robe in the kitchen and my son will say, ‘Mom, you’re beautiful,’ or ‘Mom, I’m proud of you.’”
-- by Jim Killam