She was on the street hustling drugs when she was fourteen, and pregnant with her first child. Her dad wasn’t anywhere to be found. Her mom was in and out of prison, everybody was in her world, or dead. She was born into the gang. As she explains it “you don’t have to get beaten in when your family is in the gang, you’re just born into it.” That’s what kids grow up knowing when everyone in your world wears blue or red.

School was something her great-grandmother wanted her to do well at, but she was too busy surviving each day to be messing around with books and going to class. “You gotta do what you gotta do to get by.”

We laugh now about the first time we met. I hoped we would one day. She was fresh out of jail. Ana and I were raising her son, his foster parents. I was meeting her at a facility designed to keep biological and foster parents safe from each other. When I carried Jesse into the visiting area, she was there, 180lbs of rock solid woman. I led with a cheery hello, a big smile, told her she was beautiful and threw a hug at her so fast she didn’t have time to push it off. I could feel what she was thinking and held on even tighter. She recalls wondering what the heck was going on with this old white dude – her words were slightly different – and I was bent on making sure she knew what was in my heart.

I decided that if my foster son was to have a chance in the world, I needed to help his mother reach her full potential and be the best person and mother she could be. God had given me a feeling deep down inside that I would have to lead the way. It started with that first awkward meeting.

Three months worth of those visits twice a week and all the compliments and hugs she could stand, she asked Ana and I to be her son’s God Parents.

We said yes.

Since then she’s endured, and tolerated, me pushing her, challenging her, and calling her out when she screwed up. Some lessons were learned the hard way, and I was there to pick her up, dust her off, and set her back on the path. Some were learned the easy way, by making better choices and she got lots of the same love and acceptance then too. She learned that she is beautiful, funny, kind hearted, hard working, very smart and capable of so much more. I promised her that if she could make it on the streets, she could excel in a world where she doesn’t have to look over her shoulder constantly for the police or someone wearing a colored rag on their head looking for retribution.

At first, she would quit every time she ran into an obstacle or problem. She made them insurmountable in her mind and used that to justify giving up. I didn’t allow her to quit. Instead, I gave her assignments. Challenges she would have to face knowing that by overcoming them she would learn something, gain confidence, and move one baby-step closer to where she needed to be.

Using stories from my own life I talked to her about lessons I learned, values I believed in, life principles I lived by, and honor. She never said much, but I knew it was sinking in because she watched me like a hawk to see if I was living the sermon or just giving it.

As I write this today, Crystal has faced hundreds of challenges, big and small, since we first met, and she has overcome every last one of them. She is a different person now. She doesn’t run from problems and challenges anymore. Instead, she runs toward them, breaks them into small parts and works the issues until they are gone.

Crystal decided to go back to college to become a medical assistant. She wants to be able to help people, but she needed to earn her GED first, so she did the research online. She was afraid she wouldn’t be able to pass the tests because she wasn’t smart enough. She told me that she had found the cheat answers online and was happy to have found a solution to her problem. I explained why she needed to learn, and that she needed to learn how to learn. That cheating was only cheating herself out of knowledge, wisdom, experience and a future. She deleted the cheat answers and started to study. For the next four months, she studied at least four hours a day after work.

Two months ago she told me she was ready to write her tests. She thought she could pass. I explained that I wanted her to set a goal to get 100% on her exam and not just a passing grade. I said that if she could only pass a GED test, she would fail at the next level.

She hit the books even harder.

Two weeks ago she wrote a practice test and scored 97%. I told her I was proud of her and asked if she was ready to write the exam. She quietly said, “not good enough” and went back to work. Last week she scored 100% on the practice test. She called me at home to say she was ready.

Crystal wrote a series of tests spread over four days and completed the last one this past Tuesday. She didn’t score 100% on any of them, but she came very close. Yesterday we bought her a cake and wrote how we felt about her on a card. It was her graduation card. Her very first. She knows how intelligent she is now and is beginning to see that she is capable of far more than she ever imagined.

As I write this, she is at her new college finalizing the details for her enrollment. She starts school in a week to become a medical assistant.

She isn’t intimidated by challenges any longer. She has taken all of the lessons and wisdom she earned on the street, and since, and along with a new set of values, principles and choosing to live honorably, she is setting a path to make a difference in the world. She doesn’t see limits anymore because she has begun to see what she is capable of. Crystal has learned a whole new way to fight for things. She wants to set an example for others but most of all she wants to make her three children proud.

While our country can’t come up with a solution for keeping people out of prison and gangs, a thirty-two-year-old felon and former gang member named Crystal has. She believes that she needs to take responsibility for her choices and circumstances; it’s not “the system” or anyone or anything else. She made her choices, and those choices got her in trouble just like her choices now are changing her life for the better. She knows now that by taking responsibility the power to change is in her hands. Crystal believes it’s up to her to do the work while constantly evaluating her thoughts and actions to make sure she is living by the new values and principles she has chosen.

Crystal is a felon, a gang member, and black. With a little mentorship and by changing her mindset, she has completely changed the trajectory of her life.

She plans on becoming a nurse one day.

“Yes it’s hard and scary sometimes, but if you do the work and do it far better than you need to you win because you aren’t just doing it for someone else, you are also doing it for you. You stand out by doing more than necessary. You learn more, you get stronger, and most of all you see what you are capable of and the mental limits you put on yourself go away. What others think and say about what you can or can’t do doesn’t matter anymore.”

She has cut ties with everyone from her past and has no patience for people that want to derail her progress. She has surrounded herself with new friends that have positive life goals, and they love and accept her. She is loyal, trusted, and a loved member of our family. She is one of the best and most reliable employees I have had in thirty years of being in business. She is meticulous with her work, and she goes above and beyond in everything she does. She is a loving and responsible mother and an inspiration to her siblings and others who know her. Everyone is proud of her and what she is doing with her life. Crystal has devoted her life to God and is working daily to be the very best she can be to fulfill God’s destiny for her life.

She is doing the “impossible” by committing to change and doing the work with a little encouragement from someone that believes in her and won’t settle for less than her very best.

I can’t think of a better way to invest my time or earn a more fruitful return than we have over the past two years sharing life with Crystal. She has taught us so much, made us so proud, and she loves us as unconditionally as we love her. Most of all she is becoming a strong, positive influence on her son, our foster son, and that was what I prayed for when we met.

And the hugs, well, she loves them now and can’t get enough.

Neither can I.