Failing Is Not an Option: Richard’s Story

Story by Jim Sewastynowicz and Patricia Paine
Photos by Jim Sewastynowicz

Richard Wilkerson has no regrets about growing up in the foster care system. In fact, he believes that his experience as a teenager in various group homes has given him a powerful gift—one of understanding and connecting with people who also have hardships to overcome. Even though Richard is currently unemployed at age 27, he is working hard to better his life. On Mondays and Tuesdays he attends school to earn his GD diploma, and on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays he volunteers as an aide for the disabled and elderly at the Beth Abraham Nursing Center. The gratification he receives from encouraging people who are blind or unable to walk keeps him humble and thankful for his good fortune. After all, there was a time in Richard’s life when he, too, needed encouragement—just before he aged out of foster care.

Shortly before he had to leave the system, he participated on a panel for prospective foster parents. They asked questions and he told them without hesitation that even though he was 20, he was afraid of living on his own. Whether it was fate or luck, Mary Chancy came up to Richard that Saturday and invited him over for the holidays. She wanted Richard to mingle with her family and see how they operated, which he did. They shared an instant connection and for the next two years Richard became a member of their family. Although Richard admits that it wasn’t always perfect, he loved being part of the Chancy household and still considers Mary to be his mother. He relished their time eating dinners together, watching sports on TV, and going to church. He knows that if Mary hadn’t adopted him, he would have struggled miserably on his own. She still keeps Richard’s bedroom ready for his frequent visits home.

Richard has nine biological siblings: six sisters and three brothers. Sadly he has had to separate himself from them as they have only acted as a negative influence on his life. “I realize that at this point in my life, poison people can contaminate a good heart. I feel like I lost a lot dealing with my biological family. At the age of 27 it is hard to walk away. I love my family with every fiber of my being, but they weren’t healthy for my heart.” Richard says that he wants to become more comfortable with himself spiritually, mentally, and physically before reuniting with his siblings.

When Richard turned 15, he moved in with a foster family in Manhattan at a Park Avenue address. It didn’t go well and a year later he moved to a group home in the Bronx. Richard did not take school seriously there, so once again he was uprooted and transferred to another group home in Harlem, where he lived for the next five years.

If it wasn’t for the foster care system, Richard says, he would not be the confident man that he is today. A lot of people downplay foster care, Richard says, but he has no regrets. He believes that the system helped him out tremendously. He learned how to cook, eat healthy, do laundry, manage money, and to be responsible in the group home world. Richard treasures the guidance the group homes provided during his teenage years, which he admits encouraged him to be humble and to have respect for others.

Richard’s father did not play a big role in his upbringing at home. But now that Richard is a father of three little boys, he does not use that as an excuse to ignore his responsibilities. “It’s tough, it takes sacrifice, it takes dedication, it takes patience. I love my boys with every fiber of my being. A family takes a lot of we and not me,” he says.

Even though many people believe that life is about laughing and being happy, Richard focuses on inspiring people. Every day he asks himself how many people he has made smile when they were feeling down. Did he offer a lady a seat on the subway or hold a door open for others behind him? In short, his daily fulfillment stems from helping others—not by concentrating on his own needs. This philosophy is why he enjoys his volunteer job at Beth Abraham Nursing Center. One day Richard wheeled a 92-year-old woman to physical therapy and asked her how she was doing. When she answered, very weakly, that she was tired, he got her to smile. He talks to her every day that he works, and she looks forward to his visits.

Richard says life is like taking a test. “Are you going to get test anxiety and not show up? Or are you going to give it your best shot.” For him, failing is not an option. He is giving life his best shot.