Two years ago we wrote about Christy Cruz, ICS staff member, wheelchair basketball hotshot, disability rights advocate and fashion model. That’s only the tip of the iceberg of Christy’s accomplishments and activities, but she’s just added a new one: mom!
Recently, Christy had a conversation with Independence Radio host Stephanie Wallace about how she started the ICS Women’s Empowerment Initiative, how she became an ICS staff member, and how becoming a mother has changed her life. The podcast episode is available here.
Little Boss Mama
Though she works hard at her official job as Intake and Enrollment coordinator, Christy is just as serious about the work she has done with the Women’s Empowerment Initiative, a support group she founded in 2011 and often leads at its biweekly sessions at ICS’s Brooklyn member center. “Having these women in my life gives me a greater purpose in my own personal life,” she says.
“I feel like I started out as a sister, even though I happen to be the youngest participant/group leader,” Christy tells Stephanie, who is also a member of the group. “I realize I’m the ‘mother.’” The other members apparently agree; they lovingly call her “Little Boss Mama.”
“What inspired me growing up was watching my mother struggle to give me and my sister the things that were, to many, very simple,” Christy says during an emotional moment in the podcast. “Over the years, I watched her struggle with the idea that I had a disability. And so it was very important for me to be able to show her that despite the disability, I, like anybody else, want to go out and be productive, and be the smart, intelligent person that she taught me to be….
“If you ask me [who I am], my name is Christy Cruz, and this is what I like to do. And if that’s conducting and facilitating this women’s group, or getting up to work every day, that’s just who I am. I’m not going to sit here and tell you, I’m Christy the person with cerebral palsy. That’s not me.
“I do acknowledge that I have cerebral palsy, and I’m very proud,” Christy adds. “If I didn’t have it… I don’t think that I would be the person that I am. Maybe I wouldn’t strive as hard as I attempt to.”
One of Christy’s first brushes with activism came when she was fresh out of Sheepshead Bay High School without all the requirements necessary for her to go to college, which was her dream. She looked into taking classes to prepare for her General/High School Equivalency Diploma (G.E.D.) exam but found that only two in the city were wheelchair accessible. The real problem, however, came after the class, when she applied to the Board of Education to take the exam and requested reasonable accommodation, not only for her physical disability but also for a learning disability that required her to use a proctor during the test. Weeks passed without a word from the Board of Ed. Despite Christy and her mother’s persistent calls to find out what happened to her application—or even a second application—they got no response for a year.
The director of her G.E.D. program suggested she take her case to the media, but Christy wasn’t ready for that yet. “If I contact the news, they’re going to know all my business,” she told herself. “And that was a no go.”
After applying a third time with still no response, Christy got up the courage to contact WABC Channel 7 News. Legendary consumer affairs reporter Tappy Phillips taped a segment with Christy that aired in October 2006. Finally, the Board of Ed responded with profuse apologies—and more important, with the promise of reasonable accommodation for Christy when she took the exam a week later.
She failed it. Then she failed it again. Then she failed five more times. She finally passed on her eighth try.
Most people would have given up after the third attempt, but not Christy. “It was a must for me to get into college,” she tells Stephanie. “I knew that college would be—and still is, because I’m still a student—a challenge, but it was a must. I wanted that cultural background you get from going to a college campus and being among people of all different ethnic backgrounds. And I wanted to say that I was able to start something that I was able to complete.”
Passing the Torch
“I hate to keep using the word ‘inspiring,’” Stephanie tells Christy during the podcast, “but you do—you inspire people. You empower people, and that’s more important. I feel empowered because of you.”
Christy says she believes all of her experience supporting and being supported by the strong women of the Empowerment Initiative has been a prelude to her most recent challenges of pregnancy and becoming a mother this past spring. “Now I’ll be able to pass it on to my daughter,” she says.
“When you go from having a VESID counselor tell you you’ll never go to college and that all you’ll ever be good for is social day programs and activities, and you get a G.E.D. and you get started with college, and now you have a foundation of a woman’s support group that you created yourself with the help of others, those things are monumental to me. But my motherhood to this little girl—I’ve never felt anything like this in my life! I definitely say, as of March 3, 2016 [her daughter Trinity’s birthday], she’s my greatest accomplishment!”