Melissa wishes she could erase her childhood memories. “I hated my life as a child,” Melissa recalls. “I remember thinking about suicide so many times growing up. My family hates me. No one loves me.”
When she was a baby, her parents separated. Melissa didn’t realize it at the time, but her mother’s sister had developed a relationship with her father. Her father moved that aunt and her four kids, Melissa and her sister to California without her mother’s knowledge. Melissa says her aunt and cousins physically and verbally abused her, while her dad turned a blind eye. Kindergarten became Melissa’s refuge, a safe place where she escaped the terrors of home.
During the first grade, she reunited with her mother in Texas for a few months during a custody battle. Melissa remembers her mom as loving and nurturing, but sadly, that time with her was short lived. Her father won the custody battle, sending her back to California. That was the last time Melissa saw her mother who passed away a few years later.
She unleashed her pent-up grief, fear and resentment as anger at school. “I would fight any chance I could,” Melissa said. “I think I was yelling out for help.”
Desperate to find a family that had her back, she joined a gang while attending Riverbank High School and her grades plummeted. When she was 16, her driver’s ed teacher redirected her to a different crowd. He was also the wrestling coach and encouraged her to try out.
“I started wrestling and I channeled my anger and started throwing it down on the mat with the guys. It was fun and I loved it.”
Melissa built strong relationships with her coaches and realized this was her family. She also joined the track and field team. Knowing she needed to keep her grades up to participate in sports, she reached out to teachers for help and found mentors in them, as well.
“I started feeling loved and welcomed,” Melissa said. “I made a different group of friends and hung out with student athletes and my teachers, did my homework, and stayed out of trouble.”
Melissa stayed at school from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. to avoid her toxic home environment. School administrators told her about Center for Human Services’ Pathways Transitional Living Program and just a few days after graduating high school, Melissa moved into one of the Pathways apartments where she could live at no cost while she focused on her personal goals.
“I remember thinking, ‘It’s so quiet. Life is so different. There’s no yelling. I don’t have to fight anyone. I have my own space.’ It was life changing for me.”
For the first time in her life, she had a safe and secure home. Pathways Program Manager, Paula Harter, was like a mother to her and the other staff members were mentors. They taught Melissa how to use a dishwasher, write a check, and create a resume. She got a job at Freebirds, started attending Modesto Junior College and learned how to save money through Pathways’ savings program that requires residents to set aside 50% of each paycheck until they reach $3,000; enough to pay for a deposit on an apartment after they graduate from Pathways. She reached that goal in just two months and eventually saved enough to buy a car.
Besides the practical everyday life skills she learned, Melissa says the counseling she received impacted her most. “It was a great way to start talking to someone about the issues that I have and hearing, ‘You might have anxiety.
It sounds like from what you’re telling me, you might have depression. We want to help you.’”
After 16 months at Pathways, Melissa moved into her own apartment.
“I remember sitting there after everyone had left that first night just crying because I felt so proud of myself and because I had help from so many people who made a huge impact on my life today. And I just reflected on it and I was just so happy. I prayed to God, ‘Thank you for everyone and everything that you’ve done for me.’”
Melissa, now 24 years old, channels that gratitude into giving back as a mentor to high school students and young adults and spreading the word about Pathways.