Crystal Brown finally got her house.
A house for her kids.
In 2006, Brown was desperate for a van for her kids. Her two eldest used wheelchairs, and were getting too big for their mom to lift them in and out of her old car. She had left her job as a city bus driver to take care of them, and was handing out fliers on the street and writing Oprah Winfrey, Allen Iverson, and anyone else she thought might be able to help.
Father Ed Hallinan at St. Martin de Porres Catholic Church in North Philadelphia shared Brown’s story with his church’s benefactors, one of whom immediately wrote a check.
Next, Brown turned to an even bigger need. She wanted a house, a house with bedrooms and a bathroom on the first floor equipped for Aylisha’s and Chris’ wheelchairs, a house where they could flourish and feel safe and wouldn’t need to be lugged up and down stairs, slung over their mother’s back.
Brown just spent her first Christmas with her five kids in her dream home, but her story really begins with a nightmare.
Aylisha, Chris, and their mother all have the same biological father, a man who started sexually abusing Brown when she was just 8. Brown, now 48, first understood the horror of her situation when she saw similar abuse in The Color Purple as a sophomore at Strawberry Mansion High School. But she was powerless to stop her father. Aylisha was born Sept. 9, 1989, the second week of her mother’s senior year. Brown was pregnant with Chris four months later. She lied about who fathered them.
Aylisha and Chris suffer from a progressive neurological disease, limb girdle muscular dystrophy, because they inherited a rare genetic trait from both their mother and father.
By 2006, when the Inquirer published a story about the family, Aylisha and Chris could no longer walk. But they understood their heritage, and their mother found freedom and healing in talking about it.
Brown had saved enough to leave subsidized housing in 2006 and buy a rowhouse in North Philadelphia that year. But it had even more stairs. Chris and Aylisha were largely stuck in their little rooms.
“My floor was starting to break apart,” the home was so decrepit, Aylisha recalled recently.
“My wall was falling in from water damage, full of mold,” her brother said.
Brown managed to break free of her father after Chris was born. She had three more children by other men. Jasmine, Brandon, and Wednesday, all healthy, help care for their older siblings, who are now 29 and 28.
Others might have seen her life as challenging enough. Brown, however, thought she had it better than plenty of others in her community. So she organized food and clothing drives, showers for the homeless, whatever she could think of.
An aunt who cleaned house for an affluent woman in Center City told Brown that her client used a wheelchair, and needed help getting around town. Brown offered to help, but the woman insisted on paying her.
One day, Crystal walked a $500 check from the woman down to the Walnut Street offices of Brown Brothers Harriman & Co., the nation’s oldest private bank. Brown liked the bank. “It already had my name on it,” she said.
The woman had instructed Brown to ask for her own banker, Bill Levy. He came to admire Brown, and loved her passion for helping others. Through a small foundation he managed, he helped to fund some of her community events.
Roll the clock forward nine years to April 2015. Brown and her family were still in the crumbling rowhouse, living mainly on Chris and Aylisha’s Social Security disability payments.
Yet Brown’s outreach work never stopped. In the end, it’s what got her that new house.
Levy invited another client, a retired attorney, to come with him that spring to an event at St. Martin de Porres that Brown had organized. Brown cooked all night, collected clothing and supplies, and invited neighbors to eat and take what they needed.
“She’d never been to North Philly,” Levy said of his client. “Crystal put a spoon in her hand and told her to start dishing out string beans.”
That was the beginning.
The woman had no husband and children. Even her cat had died. Brown sensed that the woman was lonely, and knew she could help. So she got her number and called.
And called again, and again.
“She pretty much blew me off at first,” Brown said at a recent interview in the woman’s condo, high above Rittenhouse Square. “She didn’t want to be bothered with me at all. She would hang up on me.”
Responded the client: “One isn’t prepared for her.”
“I was a pain in the ass,” Brown laughed.
“She was,” said the woman.
Still, the calls kept coming until Brown broke through.
“I lived in a shell,” the client explained. “It’s hard to get through. Somehow she got through. … She opened up my world.”
“You made my dream come true,” Brown replied. “I don’t think you realize that.”
Brown brought life and her five children into this woman’s quiet world. Brought her to Smith Playground in Fairmount Park. Took her in her van with all her kids shopping at the Cherry Hill Mall. Took her to buy fried chicken at the Sunoco at 33rd and Cecil B. Moore. Took her to the Tyler Perry movies her family loved. Daughters Jasmine, 24, and Wednesday, 7, made cupcakes with the woman and insisted that she lick the spoon.
The Brown family discovered their new friend loves M&Ms, and so that’s what they call her, and that’s how she agreed to be identified for this story in order to keep her finances private.
“Our connection is the unconditional love Crystal offers,” M&Ms said.
“My family was not affectionate the way Crystal is. I don’t remember hugs.”
Levy never imagined where inviting his client to meet Brown would lead. “I had no clue,” he said. But he could see how happy his client was.
One day last spring, Crystal found her dream house – she actually dreamed about it that night -- on Wayne Avenue in Germantown. It had stained-glass windows, a grand staircase, and six bedrooms, two on the first floor.
It also was abandoned, save for the homeless people camped there. The roof had holes. All the copper piping had been stolen.
M&Ms gave Crystal $180,000 to buy the house, and $150,000 so far to renovate it.
“Crystal would always talk about how she needed a house,” her friend said. “She would say, `I need a magic wand.’ One day I said, ‘I have a magic wand.’ I knew that I had the money. I knew that she didn’t. I just thought I could help with this.”
Levy saw the house. He saw the terrible shape it was in. But he knew Crystal’s determination. He also understood what his client was doing and did not discourage her.
Brown had introduced M&Ms to a new world and a new family. The woman joined the family and helped them get a new home. “In neither case is it a quid pro quo,” Levy said. “Both very willingly have given and taken.”
”Two people with needs,” he added, “found each other and gave each other what they needed.”
Dipping into her inheritance from her parents and her own savings from a lifetime of work, M&Ms gave Brown another $90,000 to replace her 13-year-old van. She has given about $400,000 in total -- a significant gift, but not enough to risk M&Ms’ financial security, she said.
Once workmen had completed a fair amount of the renovation this fall – and there is still a long way to go – Brown took the kids, just for a visit.
“They wouldn’t leave,” she said. “They’re so happy.”
There is a handicapped-accessible bathroom on the first floor near the bedrooms, a ramp to the street, a ramp to the second floor. The kitchen is big enough for all of them to hang out.
"I can roll through the hallway without hitting a wall,” said Aylisha.
Without being asked, Brown insists on going to M&Ms' apartment many nights to cook dinner or help her out, taking time away from her own family. It’s not that M&Ms asks. It’s that Brown insists. She admits she loves the peace and quiet of a beautiful Rittenhouse Square apartment with views in every direction
M&Ms is in her early 70s, and when she can’t get around on her own, Brown hopes she will come to live in the big house on Wayne Avenue.
“M&Ms is just part of the family,” said Jasmine one recent evening, surrounded by her family in the kitchen of their new house.
“We love her,” added Jasmine.
“And her new cat,” said Aylisha.
They had planned a peaceful Christmas together, but Brandon, 19, dropped a glass table and had to go to the emergency room with a gash in his arm. M&Ms went to the hospital, and then to the house with her gifts. “I got everybody very warm socks,” she said. “Seemed very practical.”
Crystal gave M&Ms a new paper shredder, also very practical.
And M&Ms, a big bag.