On a day in early October 1981, Jack Williams, a popular Boston news anchor, met a little boy named James at the Larz Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline; neither of their lives would ever be the same.
Williams at that time was in his late thirties, tall and handsome with wavy blond hair worn fashionably long. He moved through life with the affable, confident ease of a man who expected success. A Phi Beta Kappa scholar, he had arrived in Boston in 1975 and had quickly risen to the top of one of the nation’s premier media markets. Earlier in 1981, WBZ-TV had teamed him with one of the first black news anchors in the country, a young woman named Liz Walker; for the next 18 years, they would prove to be the city’s most formidable on-air duo.
On this day, Jack Williams began a journey into a place he once could barely imagine, where children were unwanted, unloved, and often harmed. “I came from a very loving family,” Williams said recently. “I had two sisters old enough to be my mother. I was the first boy. I was adored. My feet never touched the ground until I was 16. I had no idea of child abuse. My idea of abuse was no dessert.”
He believed this: Every child deserves a chance to love and be loved, a chance to succeed. He wanted to use his prominence to make a difference in the community, and, as the father of six, he wanted to focus on children.
He knew there was a crisis in foster care: a long backlog of special-needs kids — kids who, because they were older or had siblings or perhaps because of physical, emotional, or mental difficulties, had long ago been bypassed by families looking to adopt. He went to the Massachusetts Department of Social Services and the Massachusetts Adoption Resource Exchange with an idea. He said he would spotlight one special-needs child each week and air the segment on Wednesdays. He’d call it “Wednesday’s Child.” DSS was skeptical, concerned that the most vulnerable children might be used to increase ratings.
That was not his purpose, Williams told the agency. “I said, ‘I’ll do it on my own time. I’ll write it. I’ll edit it. I don’t want to choose the child. No child is ineligible. Zero. None.’ I had no clue. No clue to the depths of the problems,” he says now. “But once I get committed, I don’t quit easy.”
In the museum, he gave James a white fire hat, and as the boy explored, a cameraman followed. James had been shunted from foster home to foster home, and the television star talked to him about things he liked, and his hopes of finding a family. For the first time in his life, it is possible that James felt like the most important boy on earth.
Phone calls trickled into the adoption agency, and the next summer, James was placed with an adoptive family. Williams continued to meet more children, each week taping the visit and then airing it on a Wednesday. He introduced each segment by describing that week’s child, highlighting the positive, while not hiding what problems might lie ahead. “Within a year,” Williams says, “people started paying attention.”
There were successes, families sprouting from the most barren ground. There were also tragedies — children adopted, then returned as though they were cars that had malfunctioned. Some adoptive parents expected that love and kindness could fix all wounds, not realizing until too late how long that could take. “What is the alternative?” Williams asks. “What do you do with kids if they’ve been battered and bruised? We do our best to get them in loving families, and then we hope.”
On a spring day with lilacs bursting and the city bathed in green, “Wednesday’s Child” number 850, a young woman named Araina, comes to Boston. It is her day of hope. More than 525 children have found families since “Wednesday’s Child” began; maybe she will, too. She is just shy of 16, a high school freshman living in a residential home an hour south of the city with five other foster children. Two younger sisters found adoptive families long ago, and she hasn’t heard from them since. It’s as if they simply flew away and left her behind. She is shy, but when asked, she says she likes big dogs, soccer, pancakes, cereal, and the color red. She has a collection of decorative ornaments, but no place of her own to show them. She says she wants “a mother, a father, and younger kids and older siblings.”
Williams has interviewed children at police stations, malls, Boston Celtics practices, fire stations, playgrounds, ballparks, sledding hills, miniature golf courses, petting zoos, horse farms … wherever a child would feel relaxed and engaged. “Nobody has ever turned us down,” he says. For Araina, who wants one day to work in criminology and forensics, the meeting is supposed totake place at the State Police Crime Lab in Sudbury. But her case manager gets lost, and with time growing short before Williams has to return to the station, they make new plans. Araina will be filmed outside the CBS4 Boston (formerly WBZ) studio. The Middlesex County Sheriff’s Office agrees to bring a squad car and fingerprinting equipment for Araina to try.
Williams and the cameraman swing into action as soon as they arrive at the station. “We have a very cute kid,” Williams says to the camera. “I want to introduce you to the newest member of .” Araina smiles the shy smile of a blushing teenager.
“You interested in law enforcement?”
“How are your grades?”
“You have to study hard. You are a great kid. I’d be so thrilled one day to be there when you graduate from law enforcement academy.”
Araina climbs back into her case manager’s car, heading south to her home, where all she can do is wait for the show to air and then wait to see if anyone calls to say, “I want to meet Araina.”
Jack Williams walks back into the station, down a corridor, and into his office that’s crammed with photos of “Wednesday’s Child” kids. Beside his desk, a cabinet holds tapes of the segments, lined up in rows, organized by years. He doesn’t forget a child. Not one.
“I remember a little girl, many years ago,” he says. “I took her to play tennis. So precious. The social worker took me aside and told me the little girl had been sexually abused since age 3. She’d been passed around, even to neighbors. I said on the air that her early life had been horrible, that she had been abused. Some guy called the station. ‘I’m the father. That was bull—-. I’m coming down there.’ I said, ‘Come down. I’ll be by myself. We can talk.’
“There’s a boy with Down syndrome. He was adopted by a Vermont family, and he was looked after by the whole village. What would have happened to him?
“I remember one of my favorite pieces. A boy had been badly burned. Most of his body was disfigured. We taped him at the Arnold Arboretum. The camera person said, ‘I don’t know if I can go through with this.’ I said, ‘You think it’s hard on you — what about him?’ I said to the boy, ‘You don’t complain?’ ‘Nope.’ ‘Even when it hurts every minute?’ ‘Nope.’
“There was this one little boy. It was the only time I almost didn’t tape. He had both hands on the doorknob. He took one look at me and he started hitting his head on the wall. I said, ‘I can’t put this on TV.’ Finally, you saw the little boy sitting on the ground, mumbling. I was so curious. I said to the social worker, ‘I want to know who adopts this kid.’ She called me after he’d been adopted by a family in North Attleboro. I went to see them. It was a humble house. A sign outside said, ‘Welcome Jack Williams.’ And inside there was a second sign: ‘We love Wednesday’s Child.’ I go in and the kid had started writing words on a computer. ‘Hi, Jack Williams.’ I said, ‘What are we doing?’ He types, ‘WBZ-TV4, the station New England trusts.’
“At that moment I said to myself, I will never judge anyone again on a first impression. Never again.”
If you’re having a bad day, or a bad month, spend some hours watching the “Wednesday’s Child” tapes. Your worries about that balky car or the leaky roof or your kid who is goofing off in English class will wash away as child after child talks to you across the years.
Paul is 14. He has lived more than half his life in foster homes. It’s hard to move, he says. You start getting used to someone and then, poof — you’re gone…. Hi folks. It’s Michael here. I like a family that doesn’t give up on me…. Gus is 11 years old. Now that I’m going to be on “Wednesday’s Child,” a good family will pick me out and I’ll stay. I hope that I will be happy with them for the rest of my life.
I think I can be very good. I’d be nice and I wouldn’t lie a lot. I wouldn’t pick on the other person that was living there. I would try and be a nice kid, really. I just want a family to keep me for the rest of my life…. Dennis at 13 playing catch with Williams: I could be a good son. I’m at my grade level. I’m active. I’d just be there when they need me. The faces go on and on and on. More boys than girls. More Hispanic and black than white. Many eventually find families. Many do not. Today there are about 1,000 children in Massachusetts foster care who are legally free for adoption. Jack Williams long ago made his peace with the math — so many children, not enough Wednesdays.
“Imagine the impact for generations to come if you give hope and love to just one child,” he says. And then he tells a story, one that he says is his favorite of all the happy stories. He says there was a boy named Angel, and he was being starved to death.
The tape is from February 1992. On it an 11-year-old boy is at the Stoughton fire station with Williams. Angel weighs only 49 pounds. This is a boy who needs lots of love, lots of nurturing, Williams says. He asks the boy, What kind of guy are you?
I’m part Puerto Rican and part Irish. I like to help people. I already know what I’m going to be when I grow up — a doctor or a therapist … All I need is an adoptive home.
That day, Mary Beth Carmody came home early from her job as an attorney in the U.S. attorney’s office to her house in Framingham. She turned on the television just as Angel appeared. “I thought I was watching my kid,” she recalls. “I immediately called [the Massachusetts Adoption Resource Exchange] and kept getting a busy signal. I ran out to get groceries and called back. They said they were getting so many calls, there would be an informational meeting in two weeks. I thought to myself, ‘They will never give this kid to a single parent.'”
At the meeting, Angel’s therapist said, “This is a kid you will want to give 110 percent. Not only is he capable of bonding, he desires it.” And then the prospective parents were told about Angel. His mother was 13 or 14 when she gave birth. When Angel was 4, his father went to prison. His mother cooked her drugs over the kitchen stove, and when Angel entered kindergarten in Chelsea, his teacher saw him snorting sugar through a straw the way he thought his mother did. By age 5, Angel roamed the streets. He climbed into garbage bins, looking for food for himself and his three younger siblings. He stole food from neighborhood stores. He’d run after the pizza truck, and the drivers let him fold boxes in exchange for slices. When he was 6, the state removed Angel and his siblings from their mother’s home.
The boy who was once called Angel is now a young man of 26. He has changed his name to Luis. He sits beside Mary Beth Carmody on a sofa in their comfortable living room; they take turns remembering how their lives intersected after she saw him on “Wednesday’s Child.”
“I remember my birth mother dressing us up. I remember the courthouse. I remember hearing the judge yell. Seeing my birth mother cry. Someone telling me I was going on a trip but my mother couldn’t go,” Luis says. “I know there’s a hell. I’ve lived it. Being in foster care was hell. In my second foster home, I was one of 14 foster kids. [Today the legal limit in Massachusetts is six children, including birth, adopted, foster, and day care children, per home at any one time.] We felt like prisoners. We were beaten. Once I was so hungry I sneaked into the kitchen and took a cookie. The foster mother grabbed me and took every cookie in the package and stuffed them in my mouth.”
The abuse in that foster home eventually led Luis to being hospitalized. “My brain would shut off and I’d black out,” he says. He remembers shaking and rocking back and forth for hours. Doctors treated him for severe depression and he was appointed a guardian ad litem to see that he was cared for. A judge ordered Luis’s foster agency to contact “Wednesday’s Child” and to come up with an adoption plan.
The first time Mary Beth met the boy called Angel, they bonded while putting together a red Lamborghini model she’d brought him. When she stood up to leave, he put out his hand and said, “So when am I going to be adopted?” This was in March 1992; Luis moved in in May, and after fulfilling the state’s six-month residency requirement, they legally became a family in November.
Mary Beth came from a large Irish-Catholic family, and suddenly Angel’s life was filled with uncles and aunts and cousins and grandparents. He struggled with schoolwork, but he never said no to the tutors and summer schools. He started catching up. But this is not a story from Disney; when Luis was 14, he got into some trouble. When the police called Mary Beth, her son was sitting in a jail cell.
“I still couldn’t completely trust her,” Luis says today. “I knew trust meant hurt. I viewed all adults as people who would hurt me and leave me and abandon me — how bad can I be before you give up on me? I was sitting in the cell and I could hear her outside the door, and I thought they must be doing papers to send me away again.”
Instead, to her son’s shock, Mary Beth walked into his cell. “I loved you yesterday,” she said. “And I’ll love you tomorrow. Have I passed all your tests? I am not going away.”
They worked together after that, a family struggling through the barriers of a past neither could control. Luis attended Curry College, where he starred in theatrical productions. On his graduation day in 2004, the commencement speaker was Jack Williams.
Williams stood on stage in cap and gown and told everyone that whenever they think life is tough, he wanted them to remember the story of a boy named Angel. When he finished he said, “That boy is here with us today.” He called Luis Carmody to receive his diploma as 5,000 people stood and cheered.
“Jack told me once,” says Mary Beth, “the hardest thing is not having a child find a home. He sees greatness. He sees potential.”
“Nobody else can really understand what it feels like to be unwanted,” Luis says. “In a strange way, all of the ‘Wednesday’s Children’ are brothers and sisters. And Jack is our father.”