At 39, Crystal Ellis was childless by choice. Then the daughter of her longtime partner, James Hazelwood, got sent to jail. Her 11-month-old child, Wan'ke, could either be adopted by James and Crystal, or be sent into the foster system.
Six years later, Crystal has a mother’s unconditional love for 7-year-old Wan'ke.
“Wan'ke is my special little man, that’s what I call him,” says Crystal. “He's loving, he's caring, he's helpful and funny…He made me fall in love with him.”
It's 5:45 a.m. on a typical weekday morning. James and Crystal are both sipping coffee. A loud “Wooooooooooooo!” roars from Wan'ke's room as he hits a home run while playing his Wii. He runs into the kitchen and yells, “I won! I won!” James and Crystal stop and laugh before going back to their routine.
At school, Wan’ke’s exuberance has earned him a seat apart from the other clusters of students in his second-grade math class. His teacher, Laura Kopshever, hopes being less distracted will help Wan'ke do better work.
After school, Wan'ke works with Crystal every day on his math and spelling. “He's gonna be doing work and improving as long as he's under my roof,” Crystal says.
When the homework is done, Wan’ke rushes outside to shoot hoops; he dreams of becoming a professional basketball player. Wan'ke shoots and shoots, relentlessly chasing every rebound and missed shot.
“He will shoot around until it gets too dark to see sometimes,” says James. “Then he asks to turn the porch lights on.”
When Wan’ke was a toddler, he called James Pappa and Crystal Momma. That took Crystal aback at the time. But after years of raising him as her own, she looks back fondly on a time six months ago when Wan’ke told her, “I know Arnetta is my mother, but I’m choosing to call you mom.”