As with many former foster youth, my life has seen its share of broken promises. Promises that as a child I had faith that adults held the power to keep. Birthday promises, Christmas gift promises, trips to Chuck E. Cheese promises, all became a norm in my life. I never asked for much but was often promised the world, only to have it shatter before my eyes time and time again, city by city, school by school, report card by report card, caseworker by caseworker, foster home by foster home.
This was my reality until as a child I made a commitment to myself to no longer allow adults to use their empty words against me. I became what most would deem pessimistic but what I saw as realistic. I knew that eventually we would all perish beneath the Earth anyway and that planning for that demise was the only promise worth accepting. This was until I foolishly fell for an old one; a promise that many people know well. Despite the risk, I hoped with all my being that it would come true. The promise of a future. No matter how much I remained faithful, life happened, and in this case, we called her the COVID-19 outbreak.
I was raised in foster care throughout Chicago, Illinois. Many of the adults in my life were abusive physically and mentally. Based on these childhood experiences and the perception that I had crafted to cope with them, I never thought that I was capable of experiencing anything outside the brick walls I hated to call home.
Like many, I assumed that I would stay in my pain and sorrow forever. Thankfully, things change. As my experiences grew better, my most intimidating fantasies, like going to college, began to see fruition. Despite this victory, I wanted more. I decided to take a whim into the unknown and study abroad. I fell in love again, this time no longer with broken promises but with the thrill of spontaneity and the unknown.
Throughout college, I continued to find ways to escape and travel. To some, this can be viewed as highly positive. But what I now can identify, I had post-traumatic stress disorder. Living in closets and constantly being berated and smacked if I did not do my chores correctly negatively impacted how I communicated my desires to myself. This only worsened over time and harmed how I viewed security offered by others. With this realization, I took a chance and decided to do something both spontaneous and rooted in faith. I joined the Peace Corps and served in China as a university English teacher. This ended after seven months of service when I was abruptly evacuated due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Since my childhood, I’ve yearned to create connections with everyone I came in contact with. I wasn’t getting this from those I called Mom and Dad, so it was important for me to connect with someone. Even now, I continue to approach situations with avidity in hopes of learning something new, particularly about myself. I decided that with the Peace Corps I was going to start new and try my best to get comfortable with the people I worked with. I took the time to learn Mandarin and opened up to my Chinese host family who helped settle me into the new culture. I bonded with my co-workers who became family.
Just a short while ago, I was planning an intercultural festival with my students, and getting them to open up more with the international student community on campus. The university I served at did not have many resources about United States culture available for the students to use in their continued efforts to become word perfect in speaking English. I filled that void for my students. I made myself available for them, to talk about their studies but also about being a college student.
Being in my 20s and having my bachelor’s degree made me more relatable than the other teachers they had. I was beginning to develop many initiatives for my students to learn and share college experiences with other students from foreign countries. All of this was taken away because of this virus. When I was evacuated it felt like all that I had worked toward in trusting those around me and allowing myself to further heal from my past was left unfinished. No matter how hard I try I can’t help the incompletion I feel inside.
A mentor in my life often tells me to be the healing I wish to see in the world. Too often I see people deal with their pain in unhealthy manners. I once would enter a cycle of judging them, trying to understand, only to find myself judging once more. I constantly see many people use drugs and drink abusively to drown their pain away. I once thought, at least that’s not me. I would use my straight edge status to mitigate any doubt that I did not have everything under control. I didn’t. I don’t. I am just as broken and abused by the world as everyone else. There are so many foster youth who do not get the chance I’ve had to heal.
The opportunities I’ve had to make others’ lives better is something I will never take for granted. With situations like the COVID-19 outbreak making it very difficult to think optimistically, I know that this too shall pass. Sometimes I wish I could go back, back in time to my childhood, for times were indeed simpler. There was no COVID-19 back then. There were, however, broken promises, promises made by the government, promises made by parents to soothe their child’s imagination, and promises meant to make the truth less troubling. With so much going on right now to reduce the impact of this outbreak and help people get back to their lives, I know that I can at least make a promise to myself: To be the healing.
Born and raised in Chicago, Jarvell Williams recently served as an English teacher with Peace Corps China. Williams has also served as an AmeriCorps VISTA member in Prescott, Arizona, with United Way of Yavapai County and The Launch Pad teen center. Williams graduated from Southern Illinois University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and intercultural relations. In his free time, Williams enjoys theater and frequently enjoys traveling and visiting friends.