By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
They crowded into the basement of Assumption Catholic Church in Southeast Washington, hundreds of people, all to celebrate something. As a child, Edwin Williams was never quite sure what, exactly. He knew there would be food and that he and his older sister would have to sing "Jesus Is Love." He knew they were there to honor his mother and father.
What Williams did not know was that both his parents were former cocaine users and that he and his sister, Danielle, were born addicts. So when family, friends and other members of Narcotics Anonymous gathered for one day each September to rejoice in the survival of Cheron and Edwin Williams Sr., the young boy sang, though he did not understand why.
"The good thing about my family was that they always sheltered me," Edwin Jr. said. "I didn't know what NA stood for. I didn't know what any of that stuff stood for until I was probably 12 years old. I was so stupid, you know? I just never put it together, I guess."
Those who raised Williams during his formative years -- the period in which his parents traveled up and down the East Coast in search of cocaine -- take his perceived ignorance as an affirmation of their diligence. Williams's grandparents, aunts and older sister shielded him as best they could. Had the family taken any other approach, he likely would not have graduated from the University of Maryland in 2008 with one season of eligibility left as an offensive lineman on the school's football team. The chances of him being signed by the Washington Redskins as a 6-foot-3, 315-pound undrafted rookie would have been equally slim.
"We beat it into his head," Cheron Williams said. "You don't want to end up like your mom and dad. You don't want to end up like your mom and dad. You don't want to end up like your mom and dad."
Cheron and Edwin Sr. said neither of their children suffered any physical, mental or emotional consequences of Cheron's prenatal cocaine use. Edwin Jr. dealt with intense migraines as a young boy and is dyslexic, but Cheron said the former was because of allergies and the latter was proven not to be a direct result of her addiction. That the child of a mother who used cocaine throughout pregnancy would grow up perfectly healthy is not unusual, despite theories suggesting otherwise that were propagated for much of the past three decades. Most of the effects of a mother's cocaine use on a child can be "ameliorated or reduced" in a healthy postnatal environment, according to Gregg Stanwood, an assistant professor of pharmacology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
"A number of studies have shown that the kids can recover just fine from the prenatal insults," Stanwood said. "The general sense is that on average it does impact a child's neural development, but the classic idea of the 'crack baby' is generally an exaggeration."
The prevailing view in the 1980s was more ominous. Cheron said that during both of her pregnancies the damage her drug use could be doing to her children was constantly on her mind and that her family had both kids "tested every which way they could be tested," just to be sure.
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Williams and his sister moved in with their grandparents, Thomas and Orlean Pierce, shortly after he was born, and the Pierces were determined not to allow the neighborhood in which their grandchildren lived claim two more young victims.
In 1988, Thomas Pierce, then the head mechanic for the D.C. transit system, built a one-story brick house in Deanwood, a low-income sector along Eastern Avenue NE near the Maryland border. Drug and alcohol addicts loitered on the street corners, as did prostitutes.
"It was not unusual to read the newspaper and read that a kid got killed over a leather coat or tennis shoes," said Camille Pierce, Williams's aunt. "And it was six blocks from us."
Williams was not allowed to attend nearby public schools, nor was he allowed to play outside during the evenings. Pierce, then a high-ranking official in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, drove Edwin and Danielle to a private school each day, and the radio could not be turned on until the three had discussed a current event.
"Me being stubborn and being stupid, I just felt like they were trying to be mean and not let me hang out with my friends because they were scared that something was going to happen," Williams said. "It was stuff that I don't do now, that I was just doing to fit in. Just being ignorant."
When Williams was 8 years old, a neighborhood friend devised a plan to steal a B.B. gun from an elderly couple that lived up the street. No more than 45 minutes after the duo had gotten the weapon, Thomas Pierce discovered them shooting it in a side yard. The spankings Williams received were nothing compared to the look of disappointment on his grandfather's face, Williams recalled.
Throughout middle and high school, Williams committed similar acts of rebellion. Though in retrospect Williams said he appreciates the overly protective manner in which his family raised him, he did not understand its benefits at the time.
Williams said he stole and was disrespectful to women. He said he did not apply himself in school and talked back to his elders. He said he drank and smoked pot. The situation only worsened when Cheron and Edwin Sr. returned -- sober and active participants in Narcotics Anonymous. The couple separated in 1996 and divorced five years later, though both remained constant presences in their children's lives.
Cheron went back to school and earned a master's degree in psychology. She also became a certified addiction counselor and routinely drug-tested her children.
If Edwin and Danielle came home too late, they knew Cheron and the purple satchel in which she carried her drug-testing kit would be waiting for them. They knew the drill: Take the cup into the bathroom, leave the door open, fill up the cup and don't flush the toilet.
"If they had friends coming to the house that wouldn't submit to a drug test, they couldn't be their friends," Cheron said. "They didn't have as many friends as some children."
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After graduating from Fayetteville State (N.C.) in 1980, Cheron Pierce and Edwin Williams Sr. married and became residential caregivers in a Fayetteville group home for juveniles who committed felonies.
Between the subsidies the Williamses received for running the home and the income derived from other jobs -- Cheron taught at a local junior college and Edwin Sr. was a job developer for social services -- the pair had a lofty enough financial status to associate with, according to Edwin Sr., "a lot of upper-class people." It was then that the Williamses became addicted to cocaine.
"At that time, because we were able to maintain a home, have new cars, have spendable cash, we didn't recognize that it was a problem," Cheron said. "Because we still were in the range with professional people."
Their moderate wealth -- Cheron said the couple owned Mercedes vehicles -- allowed them connections with a crowd that fostered their addiction. The couple worked all week and then spent upwards of $3,000 per weekend on freebase cocaine. "And on our birthdays," Edwin Sr. said, "it might be more."
Following the birth of Danielle in 1983, the Williamses relocated to the District where, Cheron said, "things were okay for a minute." But once they found jobs, their drug use resumed.
Cheron and Edwin Sr. turned over their children to Cheron's parents and left town. They bounced from Fayetteville to Baltimore to Liberty City, the area of Miami in which Edwin Sr. grew up. "Of course," Cheron said, "there were always jobs."
By then the Williamses used cocaine daily, and soon, the couple could not find white-collar employment. Cheron spent time as a roofer, Edwin Sr. as a forklift driver.
In Liberty City, drug use was not hidden. Cheron said she and her husband purchased cocaine during the middle of the day in the courtyard of the low-income housing complex where they lived. Edwin Sr. said he thought at the time that he and his wife were giving up, that they were letting go.
"I used to always say I went there to die," Cheron said. "The worst part was going months without calling home. I was afraid to call and have someone tell me something had happened to my family or my children and I wasn't there. It was being ashamed to reach out to my family because of the life I was leading."
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These days, pride swells in the one-story brick house at 5047 Lee St. NE. Cheron soon will complete a doctorate in psychology from George Washington University, and Edwin Sr. runs a nonprofit organization called Young People's Safe Haven in Leesburg. They gathered one recent afternoon to tell their story because they know it provides fuller context to that of their only son, Edwin Jr., the one they lovingly call "Ham."
When Edwin was a high school freshman, he was jumped by a group of boys wearing steel-toed boots at a dance at nearby H.D. Woodson High. Danielle fought off Edwin's attackers, further strengthening their bond. After returning from rehab, Cheron worked two jobs and attended evening classes, and it was Danielle who had cared for Edwin at night so that their mother could get a few hours of sleep.
Thomas Pierce, the grandfather who took in Edwin and Danielle, died the summer before Edwin's junior year at DeMatha, where he had been placed on academic probation. Edwin stopped stealing. He stopped smoking. He stopped being disrespectful. And his effort in the classroom improved. Family members did not see the transformation as a coincidence.
At Maryland, Edwin was a three-year starter at center and earned first-team all-ACC honors last season. He received the 2008 Wilma Rudolph Award, a national honor given to student-athletes who have overcome "great personal, academic and/or emotional odds to achieve academic success while participating in intercollegiate athletics."
Cheron has been sober for more than 17 years, and Edwin Sr. has been clean for nearly 20. They still attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings and celebrate their yearly anniversaries, just as they did when Edwin Jr. and Danielle were kids.
Those celebrations, Cheron said, are meant to show other addicts that "we do recover." Further proof lies in the son who once sang without knowing why and who now embraces the purpose for which he stands.
"There's temptations each and every day, but there's a lot of things riding on yourself right now," Edwin said. "You can't disappoint anybody, especially yourself. Making one bad decision, in my eyes, is kind of like letting down a group of people that have built you up and believed in you, that have this preconceived notion in their head about what kind of person you are.
"And one day, me smoking some weed or being out in the streets fighting or something like that could take it all away. I've seen it happen to people. I just don't want that to happen to me."