Iris Williams as a young girl
Iris Williams, the international Welsh singer whose career has spanned more than forty years, owes it all to the encouragement of her “inspirational” foster carer.
That’s why the New-York based jazz performer became Rhondda Cynon Taf Council’s Foster Care Champion, to help find carers for over 500 children in the County Borough.
iris can now reflects over her childhood and the massive influence of her foster carer who took her from a children’s home and encouraged the path to singing stardom.
Iris hopes more potential foster carers will come forward in Rhondda Cynon Taf and help shape the lives of children and young people who need support to fulfil their life’s ambitions. But she is more than aware of the qualities a foster carer must have to nurture a child that may have a whole range of emotional issues because of their past. It is something Iris knew only too well.
Her father, a black American G.I. was stationed in Wales during World War II. While visiting a dance hall in Pontypridd he met Iris’s mother and a romance blossomed despite the fact that she was already in an abusive marriage at the time and living in nearby Rhydyfelin.
When Iris was born illegitimately in April 1946, during a time when it was socially unacceptable, her mother had no option but to give the baby up for adoption and was forced to lose her. Subsequently Iris spent the first seven years of her life in a children’s home in ChurchVillage.
Although she found comfort and friendship amongst the other children in the home, life was far from easy. Riddled with insecurities about being without a mother or a father, she also had the added obstacle of being of mixed ethnicity which in the 1940s Welsh valleys was a rarity.
“My first two experiences of being fostered were not good ones,” she remembers. “Like so many other foster children I played up and acted out a lot. In those days there wasn’t any counselling for children and a lot of us were angry and frustrated, lashing out and rejecting love.
“We had no connection with blood relatives, we didn’t know why we were in a children’s home and the feeling of being unloved and rejection was a terrible thing and I think that’s why I rejected any type of affection coming my way.
“Nothing felt permanent and I was afraid to connect and build a relationship with anyone because if my mother could abandon me then anyone else could. This was on top of being of mixed ethnicity, when other children bullied me and called me names. It just added to my growing insecurities.
“I remember being given a new pair of shoes by one couple who were fostering me and I was so overjoyed with these shoes – my first new pair – that I refused to take them off. When it was time to have a bath I still refused to take them off and in a temper I jumped in the bath with them on. That was the end of that and I was sent back to the home.”
Looking back on those early years, Iris remembers being lined up in the home alongside the other children while married couples came along to choose who they wanted to foster – a far cry from today’s procedures.
“They would get to choose which child they wanted and clearly I stood out from the rest because of the colour of my skin,” she remembered. “In those days people were afraid of that they couldn’t understand and I had real issues of my own to deal with.
But Iris’s story took an amazing turn for the better when Bronwen Llewellyn, a miner’s wife from Ty’n-y-bryn, Tonyrefail, visited the children’s home in around 1953. Her husband, who worked underground at the Coedely Colliery, had lost his first wife and he was left to bring up seven children of his own.
Bronwen was his perfect partner because she loved being a mother to so many children and when they ultimately grew up and flew the roost, she began to foster even more.
“She was the most wonderful woman who was well suited to becoming a foster carer because she simply adored children and was patient and understanding. She would foster short or long term and when she fostered me at the age of seven I remained with her until I left for college. Even during the summer holidays she would foster another child on a short-term basis as company for me.
“There are many qualities that foster carers need, but above all patience and understanding are the most important of them. Foster carers need to realise how traumatic it is for a child to adapt to this new life, how ground rules must be put in place, but also the need to win respect, confidence and above all love and trust in a child that is probably scarred by their personal experiences.
“It was hard for me to get used to trusting another person because I was always wary that they might send me back to the home. For a long time I kept my suitcase packed under the bed, which goes to show that the insecurity in a small child can be vast.
“But Bronwen achieved that love and trust. It must have been tough for her, because I was a psychologically damaged child but with plenty of patience I changed. She was such a loving woman and made a fantastic foster carer.”
Iris became a pupil at Tonyrefail Infants’ School and whilst still a young girl it was her foster carer that recognised her talent for music. Soon she sent iris to tap dancing classes, dance classes and piano lessons.
“She encouraged me to do everything and realised I could sing, which I often did around the house or in chapel on a Sunday. Basically she let me blossom and I was privileged to have been fostered by her.”
With so much love and encouragement Iris Williams grew to become a household name, and when she became an adult was reunited with her birth mother who sadly passed away in 1994. Iris also met a half brother who she remains in constant contact with in Rhydyfelin, named Ashley.
After winning a scholarship to train at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, she became well known in Wales with the recording of “Pererin Wyf”, a Welsh language version of “Amazing Grace”, in 1971. Her biggest UK hit came in 1979 with “He Was Beautiful”, based on the theme from The Deer Hunter. After hitting the national charts she enjoyed her own BBC television series and earned gold and platinum discs.
During her long career she has performed all around the world, conquering such prestigious venues as the Oak Room in the Algonquin in New York and becoming a regular feature with major cruise liners including P&O Cruise Liners as well as appearing in 14 Royal Variety Performances.
She also worked closely with the likes of Bob Hope, Tony Bennett and Rosemary Clooney and carried out several charity performances for President Gerald Ford. More recently she performed at the Brecon Jazz Festival and after becoming a recipient of the OBE was also admitted to the Gorsedd of Bards at the National Eisteddfod of Wales.
Iris, who has a son, Blake, added: “Music was always a passion for me and Bronwen inspired me every single step of the way. She encouraged me to sing in local concerts and in eisteddfodau and supported me throughout my training at the College before embarking on my career.
”No words can express how much she meant to me and what she did to help me along those childhood steps to adulthood. That’s the effect foster carers can have on children and I only wish more people would recognise how rewarding their experience could be and how life changing it is for the child in their care.
“Although my childhood had its difficulties I was determined to succeed and knew I had this talent which helped get me through difficult times. It’s all too easy to wallow in self-pity, but I was determined to make something of myself.
“Thanks to a foster carer, those hopes became a reality. It takes a special person to accept the responsibility of fostering. They need to be kind, patient and have the ability to say the word “No” to an insecure child who doesn’t know the meaning of “tough love”.
“Ultimately it must also be incredibly rewarding to give a child a new start in life and see them blossom and succeed.
”I hope all of those children in Rhondda Cynon Taf will enjoy the same positive experiences as I had as a fostered child – but that can only be possible when more foster carers come forward which I hope they will do this year.”
With over 500 children in various types of care throughout the County Borough, Rhondda Cynon Taf Council’s Foster Care Service provides high quality family placements for children and young people whose own families are unable to care them.
Cllr Annette Davies, Cabinet Member for Children’s Social Services, explained: “As a champion to our cause, the support and profile of Iris Williams has helped us to attract the attention of even more potential foster carers who can open their homes and their hearts to children throughout the County Borough.”
Rhondda Cynon Taf already boasts 153 foster carers from all walks of life, including single carers, retired couples, families and same sex couples. All carers receive professional support and training and there are generous fees, allowances and incentives such as free leisure access for all the family.
Potential carers don’t need to own their own property, but will need a spare bedroom. Many people who become foster carers do not have children of their own. They will also have access to support 24 hours a day, seven days a week with a social worker allocated to both the carer and child alike.
If you want to know more about how to become a foster carer, then contact the Council’s Fostering Team on 0800 085 26 35.