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Family Matters

God changed the lives of two boys and Sarah James through an improbable relationship

by Linda Piepenbrink

“Everything happens for a reason,” says Keewaun Williams. The 28-year-old and his brother, Trayvon, are about to play basketball—a favorite pastime—with Ms. Sarah, their guardian since they were kids. “You know, everything that happens in our life, I believe it’s God. It’s God, just divine intervention—especially our story.”

Born in 1994 to a 14-year-old from Chicago, Keewaun was living in the Cabrini Green public housing development with his mom and some relatives. Four years later Trayvon was born, and the apartment included their grandmother, her nine children, and six cousins.

Then in the middle of the night on July 31, 2000, Keewaun and Tray’s mom was tragically killed. The next morning Keewaun came home from a friend’s apartment and saw the aftermath of the crime scene. The loss of the boys’ mom was profound.

Yet God would bring hope to their story through a single Christian woman, newly trained in urban ministry from Moody Theological Seminary.

Watch Trayvon and Keewaun's video testimony.

‘Yes, we want him!’

Keewaun was in third grade when his school principal recommended him for critical intervention in By The Hand Club, a Christ-centered after-school program. Sarah James MA ’01 began working with a group of third- through sixth-grade kids for her Big Red Team.

During a visit to the third-grade classroom, Sarah and By The Hand Club founder Donnita Travis heard that Keewaun was an unruly troublemaker who didn’t know his ABCs and needed glasses. “He could use some help with clothes and shoes,” his teacher added, taking a deep breath. “I don’t know if you even want him.”

Sarah and Donnita didn’t hesitate. “Yes, we want him!”

Soon they were climbing 11 flights of steps (skipping the risky elevator) to knock on the door of the crowded apartment. His grandma opened the door to talk to them and gave permission for Keewaun to join By The Hand.

“That was the first white lady I met. I'm not gonna lie,” says Tray now.

Keewaun remembers thinking, Who is this white lady? Why is she so happy all the time?

Sarah welcomed Keewaun to her team of 22 kids. Soon she was buying him a winter coat and scheduling his first eye exam. The optometrist had to use pictures rather than letters to test his vision. Very nearsighted, Keewaun got free glasses through a state program but also picked out some pricy red frames to fit with Ms. Sarah’s Big Red Team.

He liked By The Hand even though it took time to get used to the hugs and smiling faces. He played games, learned the alphabet, and heard stories from the Bible for the first time.

Battle for school begins

Though their school was only a block away, getting there seemed insurmountable. Keewaun didn’t have clothes to wear, often stayed up too late, and slept in.

“If you go to school four days in a row, on the fifth day we’ll go to McDonalds,” Sarah promised. She began leaving for work early from her Rogers Park apartment so she could drive him, and often his cousins—praying before dropping them off.

When Keewaun kept resisting school, Sarah joined him in the classroom for an hour a few times a week. She always left in dismay.

“The kids in the class would get into fights. They cussed the teacher out. Pens and pencils would fly over my head as the teacher had her back turned to the board,” Sarah recalls.

And because he still couldn’t read, “Keewaun was constantly made fun of” and didn’t want to be in school.

Keewaun ended the year with all Fs on his report card yet was still promoted to fourth grade in special education. Despite having a new teacher and program, Keewaun still couldn’t read and ended up with straight Fs again. Sarah longed to improve his situation.

‘Then I want to pray right now!’

Meanwhile, Tray stayed home from kindergarten because his grandma couldn’t enroll him in public school without having legal custody, a problem that Sarah sorted out after repeated trips downtown for documents, a birth certificate, social security card, and state ID.

One day Sarah told Donnita she wanted to bring dinner to the whole family and get to know them better. Donnita pulled out a $100 bill she’d found while walking through a hotel. She said, “Sarah, I think this is your money to use for dinner!”

A few days later, Donnita and Sarah brought up Popeyes chicken, fries, and soda for everyone. Then after showing a gospel video, Sarah took 15 minutes to share God’s amazing stories from Genesis to Jesus’ death and resurrection.

“I had a wonderful opportunity to share with the family why I wanted to show God’s love to them by helping them out,” Sarah says.

Keewaun was also learning about God at By The Hand. While Sarah transported kids home one February night in 2004, a boy named Joshua said he was ready to ask Jesus to forgive all his sins and be his Savior. Keewaun was listening and said, “Ms. Sarah, I want to pray, but I’ll wait until I’m older.”

Sarah told him that no one knows if they’ll get older.

Keewaun said, “Then I want to pray right now!” So in Sarah’s minivan, Joshua and Keewaun, age 9, prayed to receive Christ.

A year later, just before he turned seven, Tray would make the same decision after church, praying in Sarah’s van.

Bowling meltdown

During spring break in 2004, Sarah decided to take Keewaun and Tray on a road trip to visit her mom and family in Kentucky. One afternoon they went bowling, but when Keewaun’s ball rolled down the gutter, he got angry and left the alley. Sarah chased after him into the rain, but he was crying and wanted to go back to Chicago.

She drove him back to her mom’s house, but Keewaun tried to leave, continually kicking the door as Sarah stood in the way. Sarah called his grandma on the phone to calm him down but to no avail.

Now Sarah was also crying and distraught. She prayed, “Lord, You called me to work with this boy and his brother. I can’t do this anymore. What am I supposed to do?

“Then the Lord told me, Sarah, listen, listen.”

She heard Keewaun’s quiet, sobbing voice say, “I want my mama. I want my mama.”

Sarah pulled him into her lap and hugged him. “It’s going to be all right,” she whispered. Keewaun was grieving openly about his mom for the first time.

Sarah invited him to tell her about the night his mom was killed, and he did. He said sometimes he couldn’t get the picture of the crime scene out of his mind.

Sarah said, “Keewaun, whenever you see that picture in your mind, think about another picture. Think about you sitting on God’s lap, just like you are doing in my lap now. Picture God holding you and giving you a big hug and whispering in your ear how much He loves you. God put me in your life to help you. You’re not alone.”

That summer Sarah found a reading tutor for Keewaun and took him to a camp in Missouri with other By The Hand kids. After that, Keewaun asked Sarah to take him to her church, so she agreed. Although for Sarah it meant no break from kids all week, he and Tray loved attending each Sunday and made friends there.

“My life has changed since I knew God,” Keewaun said one day. “You know, Ms. Sarah, when I was a kid running around by my building I didn’t know about God. I didn’t know anything or that there was a God. But since I came to club I learned about God. And God has changed my life.”

Finding a Christian school

As the 2004–05 school year approached, Sarah enrolled Keewaun and Tray at Daystar Christian School. Within three months Sarah raised the tuition money ($8,000 each) from churches. She showed the boys every check that came in, a visible reminder of God’s love and faithfulness to them.

Keewaun was a fifth-grader but so far behind in school that he was put back in third grade. Instead of first grade, Tray started in kindergarten. Both were small for their age, so their classmates didn’t know they were older. Sarah registered the boys in soccer, basketball, track, Christmas musicals, and school choir. She even paid for Keewaun to take violin lessons.

Sarah kept a diary at that time. She wrote, “Every time God has called me to give the boys more of my time, energy, or money I have not been so sure I could do it. But when I step out in faith, He has shown me what is good—‘To act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with my God’ (Micah 6:8).”

Thanks to generous donors, Sarah would continue raising the funds needed for their Christian schooling each year.

Sarah at Trayvon and Keewaun's poetry night, Daystar Christian SchoolSarah at Trayvon and Keewaun's poetry night, Daystar Christian School

A family dream

One day Keewaun said, “Ms. Sarah, I had a dream that me, you, and Tray lived in a house together. I dreamed we were a family.” Sarah asked what he thought about that. He said, “I think God is preparing me for something.”

The day came when their grandma fell ill and signed over guardianship to Sarah. It felt like a natural step for all of them despite the improbable appearance. Sarah found a three-bedroom apartment closer to Cabrini Green, and the boys moved in with her.

“We come from the projects and weren’t used to structure and following rules,” says Keewaun, describing the challenges.

Sarah nods. “We had to learn each other’s culture. They went from living at their grandma’s with all the cousins to just me, and it’s quiet, so two different worlds.”

When Sarah wouldn’t let them eat Flamin’ Hot chips for breakfast, they would object: “We can’t have chips because you’re white.”

Sarah said, “No, I’m making pancakes or eggs. We’re going to be healthy.”

“That was a big battle, but we made it work,” she says. “God was always at the center of it. I’d say, ‘Guys, God brought us together, so we’ve got to figure out together how this is going to work.’”

Single mother, singular focus

And Sarah learned the true impact of being a single mother. “I had to piece together how to pay the rent and work at By The Hand and feed the boys and take them to school every day and pick them up.”

After keeping the boys during the week, Sarah would often drop them off at their grandma’s for the weekend, then pick them up for church Sunday morning—including all of their cousins. “I could have 14 kids with me on a Sunday,” she says. “I served a lot of Little Caesars pizza and made a lot of spaghetti back in the day.”

Sometimes Sarah would take the boys and their cousins to McDonalds after church. One day while the kids played in the indoor playland, an older white woman walked up and said, “Is this like a reward for the kids?”

Sarah looked at her. “No, we’re just doing lunch.”

Later Keewuan said, “Ms. Sarah, why do people always stare at us and talk to us?”

Sarah replied, “It’s not every day you see a white woman with five African American boys hanging out and enjoying one another’s company.”

Then one of the cousins told Sarah she looked black to him. “I thought that was a nice compliment,” she recalls.

Sarah’s experience and master’s in Urban Ministry at Moody had prepared her well. “It’s allowed me as a white woman from Kentucky to be in a lot of situations in a lot of urban neighborhoods,” she says. “I’ve sat in a lot of homes where a lot of folks like me wouldn’t be able to—and be trusted and be a friend.”

Teen challenges

When Keewaun was ready for seventh grade, Sarah transferred the boys to Timothy Christian School in Elmhurst, Illinois, and found a house to rent five minutes from the school. She installed a basketball goal in the driveway—hearkening back to her love of the sport and full-ride college basketball scholarship. The boys picked up her passion for basketball, and often after homework they’d all play for hours.

In high school Keewaun struggled to figure out his past trauma and hurt from losing his mom, resulting in meltdowns. He quit school, moved in with his grandma, and cut off contact with Sarah.

Feeling brokenhearted, Sarah dropped off notes at his grandma’s house, reminding Keewaun of God’s faithfulness—all the times when “people dropped off food or a check for him to be at school, providing friends or the house we lived in, the basketball goal that we played at every night, the house that he dreamed about.”

Not long after that, Keewaun called and met her at McDonalds. “Ms. Sarah, I apologize. I’m sorry, this isn’t what I want for my life, but I need help.”

Sarah sought mental health counseling for him and found out about a Christian boarding school in Washington State—Jubilee Youth Ranch. Keewaun was accepted and Sarah flew him out there. “That was the next hardest thing I had to do was take him to a place thousands of miles away,” she says.

But Keewaun says, “It was one of the best things that happened. I ended up graduating early, and I connected with God in the most unique ways when I was out there, just being out in the mountains with nature.”

‘I’m glad I did it and wouldn’t change a thing’

Today Keewaun works two jobs and lives with Tray about 10 minutes from Sarah, not far from By The Hand Club’s Austin location. He thanks her for taking him to By The Hand, raising him, and keeping him “out of a family cycle of drugs and gangbanging.” On a wall of pictures in her home, Sarah displays three Leadership and Servant Leadership awards Keewaun was given at Jubilee Youth Ranch and Timothy Christian School.

Before a game of two-on-one basketball with Tray and Ms. Sarah in By The Hand’s gym, Keewaun says, “Sarah was always there for me, kind of like a spiritual mentor, you know, not just like a mom figure. She was the one that introduced me to God.” Watch Tray and Keewaun's video testimony.

Tray, 25, played varsity basketball and graduated from Timothy Christian. He delivers packages for Amazon and hopes to get his CDL license to drive trucks cross country. Grateful for Ms. Sarah, he says, “I honestly want to become a millionaire and just buy her a house. It’s my turn to bless her.”

For now they still get together to watch and play basketball and help each other out when needed.

“Christ is the center of our relationship, but basketball has been the glue that holds us together,” she says.

Looking back, Sarah recalls, “It’s challenging. It was hard. I had many nights of tears and not knowing how to do things, feeling alone, and always trying to make ends meet.

“My job now is like every adult parent who has adult children, to walk with them through life and cheer them on, eat together, and give them a little money every once in a while and play some basketball.

“The sacrifices were worth it because that’s what God called me to do,” Sarah says. “To this day I’m still happy to do it. I wouldn’t change a thing. And I love them to death.”

Keewaun (left) and Sarah celebrating Trayvon's 22nd birthday at Lo Malnati'sKeewaun (left) and Sarah celebrating Trayvon's 22nd birthday at Lou Malnati's


About the Author

Linda Piepenbrink is managing editor of Moody Alumni & Friends magazine and is a senior editor for Marketing Communications at Moody Bible Institute.