As a child grows, key memories root in the brain to become vivid lifelong reminders. For Justin Williams, that moment came while he was playing basketball in the River Oaks Middle School gym in North Charleston.
He'd just started eighth grade. Things at home were rough, with him and his dad living with three others in a one-bedroom apartment.
Into the gym stalked two police officers, a few detectives and two people from the state Department of Social Services.
They looked like a SWAT team heading to his coach.
"Williams, come here!" the coach hollered. "I need you to go to the front office with these people."
Justin figured he was in trouble. Instead, he learned his father had gotten arrested. Justin and his sister would go home, pack their stuff and enter the foster care system.
"For how long?" Justin asked.
"Maybe a week."
A week turned into almost five years.
But his isn't a sob story or one of those about kids falling through the cracks.
Don't deserve this
Justin grew up in Orlando, Fla., with his mom and other relatives. He also grew up with a crowd that got into trouble.
"I was barely going to school," he recalls. "I wouldn't listen to my mom, wouldn't listen to my grandma."
In seventh grade, they sent him to North Charleston to live with his father. Despite his own criminal history, the older man was trying to do better.
But then came his arrest (the charges later were dismissed), and the episode in the gym.
When Justin arrived home with a DSS worker, police were there. His dad was not.
As he packed, Justin became furious.
"I don't deserve this," he fumed. "I don't deserve to live my life in a foster home."
He had no idea where he and his sister were going. Or how long they'd be there. Or what it would be like.
Yet, in one of his life's luckiest moments, Justin landed in the foster home of Andrea Sharpe.
Sharpe lived in Mount Pleasant with her grandson, Aaron Smith, and two other foster children.
Early on, she asked Justin a magical question:
What sports do you play?
"When she asked me that, I was like, 'Wow!' " Justin recalls. "From day one, she was like our family."
Basketball tryouts at Cario Middle School were coming up. Did Justin want to go?
He made the team. And he and Aaron, who was in the same grade, played endless one-on-one hoops.
It was Justin's dream. Sports and a friend like a brother.
Then eight months later, Sharpe needed to care for her aging father. Between that and work, she couldn't also care for Justin and his sister.
Sharpe worked at a boys' residential program then part of Carolina Youth Development Center, a descendant of the Charleston Orphan House. Today, the North Charleston nonprofit houses children who have suffered abuse and neglect.
Sharpe took Justin and his sister there where she could still see them.
They moved into the Ledford House, which 13 or 14 teens called home at a time, usually while waiting to move into foster homes or back with family.
Justin's immediate goal: Return to Orlando.
He admits he was a rough kid then, angry and competitive.
Yet, key relationships in his new life seeded, rooted and grew into trunks that would give his life stability. He forged critical bonds with several CYDC house counselors, including Greg Brown, Jackie Jones and Anthony Thompson.
"It was a bond nobody could undo," Justin recalls.
Then came the day his mom could take them back.
"My whole mood was changing," Justin recalls. "My gut feeling was, don't go home. Stay here and do right."
Going back to Orlando meant going back to the friends he'd gotten into trouble with.
He wanted to stay at CYDC. He wanted to play football at Wando with Aaron. He wanted to graduate high school, something almost nobody else in his family had ever done.
The decision led to a meeting of family and caseworkers.
"Everyone was like, 'Huh?' " he recalls.
His sister moved to Orlando. Justin stayed at the Ledford House.
Come and go
Since then, staff have come and gone. Other teens in the house have come and gone. All except for Justin.
It hasn't always been easy. Once, he dated a fellow CYDC resident he cared about deeply. She left.
"I told myself not to get attached to anyone or they'll up and go," he says.
Yet, Justin also became a sort of clan elder, one the other kids could go to with questions about how the place worked and what lay ahead.
Counselors began to say: "Go ask Justin."
One residential counselor that had critical influence on him was Brown. He mentored Justin and invited him to help coach his Special Olympics team. By senior year, when a bus no longer came to get Justin, Brown drove him all the way from North Charleston to Wando every day.
"People just gravitate toward him," Brown says. "And he always wanted to help out."
At Wando, another world opened. Justin and Aaron became like brothers.
"Anything he would do, I would do. Anything I would do, he would do," Justin says.
Both played cornerback. On the field, it was like they could reach each other's minds - and had each others' backs.
"They were just a crazy duo," says Dustin Williams, their position coach. "If you saw one, you knew the other one wasn't far behind."
Some compared them to the Harrison brothers, top-scoring twin guards at the University of Kentucky. They even had the twins' jersey numbers: 2 and 5.
Justin started every football game his senior year and racked up 34 solo tackles, four interceptions, four forced fumbles and three sacks.
Some coaches didn't know he lived in a group home until a CYDC staffer picked Justin up in a bus. The next day, one called him into his office.
"Why were you getting into a bus with all those kids?" he asked.
"I wasn't afraid to let people know my situation," Justin says. "But my thing is: Don't treat me any different."
Did the coaches coddle him? No, they pushed harder.
"Do not let your story dictate your future," Williams warned.
And Justin didn't. He'd arrive at Wando at 6:30 a.m. because he rode a bus from North Charleston. Some days, he didn't leave football practice until almost 10 p.m.
"He's just a great kid," Williams says. "I saw him grow from being a high school kid to a young man, on the field and in the classroom."
His teammates also supported him. They wouldn't leave school until Justin's ride came, often long after practice ended.
"Not until my bro Jay goes home," they'd say.
Justin also knew that, unlike his peers, he didn't have parents pushing him.
"If I don't push myself, who's going to push me?" he realized. "Either you push yourself, or you won't be pushed at all."
Justin graduated from Wando in June. His family, including his mom and dad, came to watch him cross the stage.
Now 19, he also has aged out of the DSS system.
One recent summer day, he glanced at the Ledford House which he will leave in a few weeks. It's where he wrote poetry to deal with landing in the system. It's where he made friends, flirted with girls, did his homework, fought with roommates, bonded with roommates and said goodbye to them all.
"That's where I lived the good times, the bad times - and the boring times," he says, grinning.
Off to college
Those times include reuniting with his father, who has become a role model.
"I felt he'd ruined our lives getting us put into foster care," Justin recalls. "But our relationship has grown. As I got older, I could forgive him because I forgave myself. I could have a father-son relationship with him."
On June 16, Justin was with his dad when his phone rang. It was a CYDC staffer.
"You got into S.C. State!" she said.
Justin was elated. He has a chance to walk on to a Division 1 college football team. The thought brings a wide smile over Justin's face.
It's a sight to see.
Justin is a guy whose closet is arranged by color and style. He works at the Nike Factory Store, where coworkers call him Sneaker Head because he loves sports shoes.
His shirts are ironed, his Nike elite socks and baseball caps immaculately matched.
Next month, when he moves to Orangeburg, he won't go alone. Justin and Aaron will be roommates. Justin plans to major in business with an eye on sports management.
But there's another reason he smiling.
He will be the first person in his family to go to college.
"This is the way my life was meant to be for me to become the man I want to be," Justin says. "I am and I will be someone."
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.
Williams was starting cornerback for Wando High and hopes to walk onto S.C. State’s team next year.×
Justin Williams at Wando High senior day with his parents, Shakara Cooper and Jerome Williams.×
Justin Williams graduated from Wando High this year and will be the first person in his family to go to college when he heads to S.C. State next month.×
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