COMING FULL CIRCLE: Nursing school graduate has gone from foster child to foster child advocate

May 17, 2022
Crystal Wood, wearing a white blouse, stands outside, smiling.
Crystal Wood on foster care: "The system is no place to raise a child." Photo by Sarah Pack

Crystal Wood doesn’t believe in “what ifs.”

The 37-year-old single mother, who will be graduating from the MUSC College of Nursing’s Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner program this week with a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree, thinks that everybody we intersect with in life is there to teach us something. Many of them teach us the good things. A grandmother who instills compassion. A sibling who forces greater patience. But sometimes we cross paths with those who bring nothing but adversity to the lives they touch. For some, that adversity can permanently destroy their lives. But for others, it’s that adversity – and coming out on the other side stronger for the hardships – that gives them the drive to overcome. 

Through all the ups and downs in her life, deep down, Wood always knew which kind of person she was. And that has everything to do with how she ended up here, at the zenith of her field. 

The truth hurts

Most of them stared with their mouths open. Some looked away. 

That was the moment she knew she was different.

Crystal Wood was 10 years old, hanging out with some friends at her elementary school when she made a comment that stopped her classmates in their tracks. 

“I just casually said, ‘I mean, you know how it is, when your dad hits you,’” she said. “But they just looked at me like they couldn’t believe what I just said.”

For years – many before that illuminating day in fifth grade, and sadly a few after – she endured her father’s many forms of abuse. At first, she took it because she didn’t know any better. Toward the end, she suffered through it so her older siblings didn't have to.

“If he was hurting me,” she said, “I knew he couldn’t be hurting them.”

Finally, at 12 years old, Wood told a school counselor what was going on at home. She was immediately placed in foster care. Though it wasn’t perfect, it was a far cry from what she was used to. For the next couple of years, she bounced around foster homes until eventually, at 17, she moved out and began life on her own. 

Things seemed to be turning around for Wood. She finished high school. Enrolled in a technical college. Got straight As. That led to her going for and becoming a registered nurse. 

Sadly, the adversity in her life would return in an all-too-familiar form.

Familiar chaos

After graduating from nursing school, she reconnected with her biological mother – now that her father was in prison – who encouraged Wood to further her education in the south to be closer to family and move from her home of Vermont down to Georgia where she now lived.

Wood was accepted at Georgia Southern University. Again, things were going well academically for Wood, her life on an upward trajectory. And then she met a guy. At first, he seemed really sweet. Wood got pregnant, and quickly, he morphed into her father. He was mean, disrespectful, abusive. It was an all-too-familiar spot for Wood. 

And for years she stayed with him, keeping the abuse and pain private. All the while, she worked at a small Georgia hospital, barely keeping the young family afloat. Many months, they lived without electricity or running water. As soon as Wood would come home with a paycheck, her husband would take it and blow it. 

"I stayed in this emotionally bankrupt place for so long.


And I had finally just had enough."

“I tried to leave him so many times, but I just couldn’t do it,” she said. “Everything was so crazy and chaotic, but it was familiar to me.” 

But to know Crystal Wood is to know that she refuses to give up on anything. So she dug deep and made a concerted effort to salvage her marriage. And for a few months, she did. But then his abusive behavior returned.

Finally, she did what she knew needed to be done, and she left him. 

“I stayed in this emotionally bankrupt place for so long. And I had finally just had enough,” she said.

After leaving her husband, Wood moved into her own place. Got sole custody of her son. Found a new job in a geriatric behavioral health psychiatric unit, working with patients with mental health needs. On the side, she began to volunteer as a court-appointed special agent (CASA), advocating for local foster kids. 

It was a natural match. 

“It’s one thing to tell somebody you know how hard it must be to go through something,” she said. “But to be able to speak from a place where you can say, ‘I’ve been where you are,’ I think that makes all the difference.”

Crystal Wood and her son Mitchell posing for a selfie 
Wood and her son, Mitchell. Whenever Wood meets with foster children she brings photos of her son. "They need to see me as a person and not just a worker doing a job." Photo provided

Embracing her life

Her first case as a CASA was two young brothers.

“I’m not going to lie, when I first met them, I was so nervous. But that melted away so quickly,” she said. 

When someone becomes a CASA, the agency asks that advocate to stay committed for at least a year. The boys she would be advocating for, both under 10 years old at the time, had already had 14 case workers since entering foster care. Yes, 14.

“I mean, who walks away from these kids?” she asked. 

"I'm so glad I grew up the way I did because now I can help people and maybe change the trajectory of their life. It gives me purpose to help these kids find some permanency, whatever that looks like."

In her role as a CASA, Wood’s role is to serve as a “big sister.” To advocate for the children. She meets with parents – foster and biological – doctors, teachers, you name it – all in the name of getting the full picture. Sometimes that means spending hours in court, listening to all sorts of people talk about the kids and their situations. 

“It really upsets me because a lot of time, the people in the courtroom talk about the kids like they’re pieces of furniture. I constantly have to remind them that these are human beings with feelings, not objects.”

And sometimes – this is the most important part, she’ll tell you – she spends quality time with the kids. Once, sometimes twice a month, Wood will visit the kids at school, maybe play some cards with them, draw pictures. Out of that time comes trust.

“These kids are used to grownups saying things and not following through,” Wood said. “So when I say I’ll be there, I’m going to be there.”

Crystal Wood balances on one foot, smiling, in front of a step and repeat with the words CASA on it 
Wood, having fun at a CASA convention. Photo provided

Around the same time Wood began working as a CASA, at the urging of friends and colleagues who believed in her, she applied to MUSC to get her doctorate. 

“I hung all my laundry out there,” she said. “I owned every little detail of my life. Some people thought I was crazy to do that, but honestly, I think it helped my chances because who better to talk to people about something than someone who has been through it?”

Joy Lauerer, DNP, an advanced practice psychiatric-mental health nurse and associate professor in the College of Nursing, was one of the people who reviewed Wood’s application. 

“I read her essay and was blown away,” Lauerer said. “GPA and references are important, but they’re not the only thing we look at. I just looked at what this woman had gone through, and I knew she was resilient.”

In their shoes

This week, three years after taking the leap of faith and applying to MUSC, Wood will graduate, capping her phoenix-like rise from the depths of despair to someone with the necessary skills and compassion to help kids just like her. Kids going through trauma, abuse, neglect, depression. Foster kids who need someone who understands them. Who can speak for them.

“I don’t know anybody that has a great foster care experience,” she said. “The system is no place to raise a child. They need someone to talk to, someone who will advocate for them.”

And who better than a person who has been there herself? Who through it all never lost hope. Who despite the cruelty of others remains kindhearted, striving to make things better for others. 

“Sometimes having difficult life experiences can make for a more a compassionate practitioner,” Lauerer said. “So much of what we do isn’t about the medicine, it’s about the relationships, and I think she’ll be so good at that. Her empathy is going to serve her well.”

College of Nursing instructor Angie Powers, DNP, wholeheartedly agreed. “Crystal personally understands the difference a mental health provider can make in the lives of a patient,” she said. “I have no doubt she’ll make a huge impact in the mental health community.”

Wood hopes that impact comes in the form of shaping a better foster system in, Hazlehurst, Georgia, where she now lives. To start, she wants to create a mentorship program for kids coming from tough backgrounds. In turn, she hopes that leads to higher standards of care for these kids. 

But on a more personal note, she hopes to make life better for a child who could use a second chance by adopting a foster child of her own. 

“It’s not my fault I was in foster care,” she said. “And it’s not theirs either. We all deserve better. And I’m going to make sure that happens.”