2012 Workshop in Henderson, Kentucky - Story list

Wan'ke's World

Jerry Habraken

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Crystal Ellis, 46, remembers the first time she saw Wan'ke Hazelwood walk. "I came to daycare to pick him up," she recalls. "I stood at the door looking at him down a hallway. He saw me, got up and walked down the hall to me. Tears were running down my face. I thought, 'How could a mother handle missing something like this?' "

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.”

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Crystal Ellis, 46, gives a wake-up call to Wan'ke Hazelwood, 7, on a school day. "One way or another, even if he ends up going to bed in his own room, I'll feel a warm body next to me by the morning," Crystal says about Wan'ke joining the adults at bedtime.

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Wan'ke Hazelwood, 7, prepares for his day at South Heights Elementary School with his grandfather's partner of 26 years, Crystal Ellis, 46. "James and I usually help him out getting ready in the morning, but every now and then, he surprises us and gets it done on his own," says Crystal. "He's growing up."

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James Hazelwood readies his grandson Wan'ke for school while a superhero game on Playstation 3 draws Wan'ke's attention. "I want to be The Hulk for Halloween," Wan'ke says. "We're both tough."

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Wan'ke Hazelwood was 11 months old when his grandfather, James, gained custody. James and his longtime friend, Crystal Ellis, raise Wan'ke.

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Wan'ke Hazelwood, 7, doesn't want to miss his bus to South Heights Elementary School where he attends second grade. Wan'ke gets up at 5:30 a.m. so he can catch the 6:30 a.m. bus. "Wan'ke waits until the last minute to get up and ready for school," says Crystal Ellis, Wan'ke's grandfather's longtime friend.

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Wan'ke Hazelwood, 7, and Thomas Chaney (right), 8, head into reading class at South Heights Elementary School. "Wan'ke is so much fun,' says Crystal Ellis,46, longtime partner of Wan'ke's grandfather.

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Crystal Ellis and Wan'ke take on some math homework. "We do homework every night," Crystal says. "He's got to put in some work time before he can play."

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Wan'ke Hazelwood, 7, says he wants to be a professional basketball or football player when he gets older. "He will shoot around until it get's too dark to see sometimes," says Wan'ke's grandfather, James Hazelwood, 59. "Then he asks to turn the porch lights on." Crystal Ellis watches from the deck.

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Crystal Ellis (left), Wan'ke Hazelwood and James Hazelwood start a Sunday dinner. "On Sundays, Wan'ke will just want to stay home and play instead of going to church, but I always tell him to get dressed," Crystal says. "If he's going to live here, he's coming to church on Sunday."

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Wan'ke Hazelwood, 7, waits for his grandfather, James Hazelwood, and James' friend of 26 years, Crystal Ellis, before they went to dinner. "I always try to do stuff with Wan'ke," Crystal says. "We go watch basketball. We go out to eat. I really like bowling with him."

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2012 Workshop in Henderson, Kentucky - Story list