This essay was not included in Reshuffled because we learned of Aaron's story after we published the book. We are sharing it now because we feel it gives many of you who may not have read Reshuffled yet a better idea of what Reshuffled contains: inspiration.
I was one of three children and the middle child. My biological mom was abusive, so that’s how it started. For whatever reason, of the three of us, she wanted to take things out on me more than my younger brother and older sister. I don’t know what they went through when I left, because I lost contact with them for a long time. The reason I left was that the school could see something was not right. I didn’t look healthy. Social services were starting to get involved and my mother did not like someone else involved in our family life.
It started with a missed meal because I did something in her eyes. Then it would be two days without food. One of my memories is going to a friend’s house to play and I couldn’t believe that they had food you could just snack on. I told my dad about it, and he was just “that’s how it should be.” He didn’t stand up to her. Another time, I was really desperately hungry. A neighbor put bread on the ground for the birds to eat and when no one was looking, I ate it.
Eventually, my dad said enough and drove me to my grandparent’s house. We both lived there with them – out in the sticks, in Kenbridge, Virginia. But then he returned home and left me there. He was the youngest of nine children, so that meant my grandparents were pretty old and not really able to take care of me.
I wanted to go home. I asked to go home. But instead, my aunt and uncle let me live with them.
My Parents Are Going to Come Back
I did not understand what was going on. I was starting to get a little bit, uh, aggressive. By the time I was thirteen I had become a tough case. Social services moved me to a foster home. It was my first time not living with family. My foster parents were super nice people. I had a lot of fun living there but I was getting into a lot of trouble in school, just not being a good kid because I didn’t want to be in a foster home. It got to a point where they could not take care of me either. One day, my social worker pulled me out of class and told me to pack my things. Looking back, there are a lot of good foster parents out there. I was just not ready for them. In the back of my mind I was thinking, hold on a minute. My mom and dad are going to say come back home. I don’t want to get locked in permanently with these people, because I need to be available for my family. They’re going to need me back. It was difficult for me to understand but I was not going home, I was going to a group home in Lynchburg named Bridges Treatment Center.
Drugs were not my problem, acting out was. Bridges was a mix of the two. I’m like, what in the world is this? There are no fences or gates, but you can’t leave. It felt like prison. Good people worked there who took us on outings. I went to school, and we had food. But I felt trapped, and another kid and I actually ran away. Two skinny kids hitchhiking after walking for hours and who should pick us up? A sheriff.
Running away meant I was kicked out of Bridges, so I was taken to the Rosie Greer Shelter in southside Richmond that had real bars and locked doors. I knew I had messed up. I thought I was tough but in the middle of this group home and looking at the kids around me, some had just come out of jail for kids, I kept thinking what’s going on. Why am I here? I was there one summer and then in another group home in a tough Richmond neighborhood at a tough school. I was picked on a lot.
My social worker managed to get me back in Bridges. I was glad to go back. I kind of thought to myself, I don’t want to keep doing this. I was like, I’m going to do it right this time. I’m going to act right, fly right.
Getting My Feet Under Me
One of my dad’s older brothers, my Uncle Lee, started to visit me at Bridges and I would go see him in Williamsburg. He’s a very disciplined guy. He helped me get my feet under me. He gave me something to look forward to. When you’re in this situation, you just don’t know what’s the next step. Where am I going to go? Who is going to take care of me? Now all of sudden, he gives me good things to focus on. Eventually, the people at Bridges said he wanted to take care of me.
He never fully adopted me, but he did everything. I moved in with him when I was 16.
As I said, Uncle Lee is a very strict, rules-driven man. He is 6’4” and all muscle. You don’t mess with him. He said, “This is how we do it. You’re going to get a job. You’re going to play a sport and you’re going to get good grades.” I had to agree to that before I left Bridges. So, when I got to Williamsburg, I had an interview and got a job with the landscape department of Colonial Williamsburg which got me started on my path to where I am now. I have a landscape business and do landscape design.
The other agreement was to play a sport. Before school started, I began playing football and made some great friends. Uncle Lee knew what he was doing. What I didn’t realize at the time, is when you get around people who have direction versus wandering into a new school and just meeting whoever, it helps set your motivation and direction on the right course.
At Bridges, I had managed to keep my grades high, and they put me in advanced classes at my new high school. So, the other thing Uncle Lee did was make going to college an expectation. He would coach me up and talk to me a lot. I never would have thought of going to college. No one in my family had ever gone there. He was strict on studying, playing a sport, working, and going to college. So, I was like, okay. Alright.
A Little Bit of Hope
To make a long story short, I applied to several schools and got into Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia where I studied horticulture. What had worked for me was having someone who gave me a little bit of hope. I know my path could have gone in any direction, but I knew if I could straighten up, I had this guy who was going to take care of me.
It is what changed me and gave me the idea that hey, there is something else I can do from here.
That’s the abridged version of my story. A lot of credit to Lee. He didn’t have to do that. He was in a good place in his life. He owned a business. He was single and had free time. His kids were grown and gone, but he decided to take this kid, his nephew, and help him through his last years of high school. He’s like a dad to me.
I was still a teenager and not perfect, but he gave me structure and expectations. He would talk to me a lot about deciding what way I wanted to go in life. The other thing he said was that society had given me a lot. I had to think constantly about how I could give back. How I could help. You know, someone helped me, what can I do to help? Now that I’m involved with CASA, that’s still in my memory from Uncle Lee when I was 16, 17 years old saying you know people have helped you, you need to help others.
Aaron Williams married his high school sweetheart, Rodelle. Together they are raising three children in Williamsburg, Virginia. His successful landscape company, Williams Landscape and Design, Inc., has provided lawn maintenance and hardscape installation and design for 20 years. Aaron remembers his Uncle Lee’s advice and is a member of the Colonial CASA Board of Directors.