“When I was 13 years old, I lived on a park bench next to a public park. For food, I would hang out at a convenience store. I would sit crossed legged with my back against the window far away enough from the doors not to be an obstruction, but close enough to be seen.
I would sit there all day quietly hoping someone would feed me.
Many days, I call them the bad days, nobody would feed me… nobody would even make eye contact with me. On those days all I would have was a drink of water from the park’s bathroom sink and the knowledge I wasn’t even worth a glance.
On what I call the ok days, someone would give me a pint of milk or some juice.
Then there were the good days, someone would give me some food and drink and maybe even a bit of change.
Then there were the GREAT days. The manager would invite me into the store and give me little jobs like sweeping the floor or straightening a shelf; in return he would give me food and use of the bathroom, which was private. I loved those days because I could disrobe and wash up really well.
One day when the manager invited me in, he didn’t give me a job. He told me his boss had seen me and said I was an eyesore… a nuisance, and that I had to go. He then gave me some extra food and sent me on my way. The food didn’t last long and after a couple of days I was hungry and without a plan. I was laying on the park bench when a woman happened by and asked, ‘child, are you hungry?’ I nodded my head yes. She said, ‘well come on then, let’s get you some food.’
I followed her to her flat which was a small one room bungalow that had a bed in the corner, a hot plate, a table and a couple of old chairs. Compared to my park bench, it was a palace. She asked if I wanted to take a shower – I immediately nodded my head yes.
The shower was a tiny stall with nothing more than the leftovers of a melted bar of soap that doubled as shampoo. After I showered, I dried myself off with a towel that was so transparent it looked like the heel of a worn-out sock. I put my dirty clothes back on and as I exited the bathroom the air was filled with the aroma of Chef Boyardee Ravioli. I remember it so well because it was my favorite after-school snack.
I sat and hungrily shoveled the ravioli into my mouth when the woman said, ‘slow down, child nobody is going to take your food.’ She continued to speak as I ate. I don’t remember her words, I only remember the beautiful warm melody of her voice.
I finished eating and she asked me if I wanted to stay the night. I nodded my head yes. She said, ‘The bed is small, we will have to cuddle up real close, but it will be ok.’ I crawled into bed and she got in behind me. She wrapped her arms around me. It was the first time I felt safe in a really long time.
When we woke up in the morning she asked if I wanted to stay another night. I nodded yes. She pointed out a park bench that looked onto her porch and said, ‘I’ll turn the light off when you can some back.’
I laid on the park bench peering through the slats of it’s back, never taking my eyes off of her door. As I looked on, men came and went throughout the day until FINALLY, the light went out. I bolted for her door and enjoyed another day of her warmth and generosity.
In the morning she asked me if I knew what she did for a living. I nodded my head no. ‘I’m a prostitute.’ She must have realized from the look on my face that that had no meaning for me. ‘I sell my body for sex because I do drugs, or maybe I do drugs because I sell my body. It’s been so long I don’t remember anymore. This is no place for a little girl like you. I want you to promise me that you are going to go home.’ I nodded my head yes. ‘I want to hear you speak the words,’ she said.
As I said the words, ‘I promise,’ I promised myself that no matter what happened to me next I would never sell my body or do drugs. This was my way of honoring her.
I continued to live on park benches, in abandoned buildings and apartment complex saunas until I fell into a job. I was 14 and a 1/2 when I began working as a cocktail waitress and got my first apartment. I kept the promise I made to my guardian angel. I NEVER sold my body and I never did drugs.
By now you may be asking how I ended up on the streets.
When I was 5 years old, one of my earliest memories is of my mother dropping me out of a two-story window which resulted in both of my arms being broken. To this day I can feel the sensation of the fall. It was drizzling out. I remember the scent of the rain. The rain that softened the grass that broke my fall. I must have passed out on impact because my next memory is of my mother scooping me up in my blankie and taking me to the hospital in a taxi. I passed out again and woke up in two straight casts that wrapped around my hands leaving only my fingers free and ended just below my shoulders. I have no memory of the time spent in those casts, only the day they were removed. It was during this time that I was sent to live with my mother’s parents. My grandmother was a functional alcoholic. My grandfather was a child molester. This marks the beginning of my running away from home.
For the next four years my mother floated in and out of my life until the day she showed up with my new daddy. We moved with him from Montreal to Miami. Luckily my step-father was an amazing dad. Now I only ran away when he was on business trips. He died 2 weeks after my 12th birthday. 80% of children who run away from home experienced emotional, physical and or sexual abuse. Children who run away from home are not trouble makers – they run from troubled homes.
By the time I was 11 years old I carried the label ‘habitual runaway.’ This is a label that is often used by law enforcement. Unfortunately it serves to demonize the child and it creates a lack of urgency in finding them. There is an attitude that the child will return home and that they are not in any real danger even though they are alone and on the streets. The label habitual runaway is also an abuser’s best friend. My mother used my running away as an opportunity to play up the role of the poor parent who has to endure an ungrateful, spoiled, out of control child.
I was 12 years old when I stayed out all night for the first time. It was a Saturday morning and I ran away and landed at a mall where there was an arcade with a Merry-Go-Round and some other rides. There were a lot of families and kids around, I felt safe there. As usual I had no money or change of clothing. When children run it’s not a plan; we are not the children who threaten to run away. It’s a result of a traumatic event, a need for survival. It’s our coping mechanism.
As I sat watching children on the Merry-Go-Round, evening began to set in and I started to get hungry. A young, well-dressed man approached me. He looked to be in his early 20s. He offered to take me to get something to eat. I got in his car and he drove me to a wooded area that I followed him into willingly. He kept me all night. He raped me all night. This is how I lost my virginity. At that time it was a word I didn’t even know the meaning of. Yet, I was lucky. He decided to take me home. Had he decided to keep me, kill me or sell me, I would have continued to be just be another habitual runaway.
Within 2 – 48 hours on the streets a child WILL be approached by a predator or an exploiter. 1 in 6 runaways will become victims of sex trafficking. Children who run come from all different types of homes. Many of them come from middle to upper income households. Somehow, we feel that these children are less likely to be suffering abuse – bad things don’t happen behind pretty doors. The truth is that child abuse knows no boundaries. Abuse doesn’t take up residence in a home because of how big or small it is. Abuse doesn’t know the difference between cash for groceries or food stamps.
The number floating around regarding how many children run away is a widely grayed number. Its estimated that between 1.2 and 2.8 MILLION children run away from home every year. The number is so gray because while a child like me is reported as a runaway, there are many foster children who run that are never reported missing, they simply vanish.
You may be wondering why I didn’t speak out, or if anyone asked me why I was running away. The abuse I endured was my normal. I knew I deserved it. My mother locked this knowledge in place at every turn. I was 9 years old when a lifeguard at our condo’s pool was molesting me. My mother found the presents he had given me to buy my silence hidden in a drawer. She asked me what I did in return for the gifts. Her question was met with shrugging shoulders and my eyes glued to the floor, filled with tears that dare not fall. That was the day she told me I was damaged goods and a tramp.
When the police asked me why I was running. I would assume that same position – shrugging shoulders, eyes glued to the ground.
When I was 12 I went away to boarding school in Connecticut where I experienced a different kind of normal. I learned that there was a place where nobody hurt you. It was during this time that I began to test the waters. I would ‘complain’ about my mother being mean, I would literally just say she was mean without elaborating. Nobody believed me, they would react to me like I was just being a spoiled little girl. My mother was a great public person and she was a natural at putting on an Oscar-worthy mother of the century performance.
Imagine If EVERY person in this world did just ONE thing to help a child who is at risk. If you know or suspect a child is experiencing a rough time, get involved. Befriend them, mentor them. Give a child a soft place to fall, their story will unfold. If I had someone to turn to for support, a soft place to fall; I would not have ended up on the streets.
Everyday we are all faced with 2 choices – do nothing or do something. How many times have you walked by and averted your eyes from a homeless person? You would not walk by me as I appear now. Give a little change, give a smile, give a moment of your time. Because a moment of kindness can save a life. The prostitute gave me that moment of kindness. This beautiful woman who seemingly had nothing to give fed, sheltered, and educated me. More that that, she saved my life. I will never be able to thank her or even know what happened to her. I will forever be grateful to her and hope she found an angel like she was.
After my return home I was told how bad I was, how angry everyone was with me. How people had written me off. What I put everyone through. My mother led me to believe that everyone hated me and was angry with me. I believed everyone knew I was bad. It would be a very long time before I would realize the truth, and even longer before I would receive proof of the truth.
My first realization came from my ex-husband. When he found out I had run away from home at 13 his words to me were, ‘no child runs away from a good home, no child runs away without good reason.’ He was the first person in my life to validate me. He was also the first person who ever asked me if I was okay. I was around 22 when we met and he was the first person to validate me. He was the man I would end up growing up with for the next 13 years. He released me from the thought that I was damaged goods. He was the first person in my life to give me a sense of self, a sense of myself. The beginning of my becoming a confident woman is a direct result of the years I shared with him.
Through all of this, there is one absolute I know to be true: We are the masters of our own destiny. We can talk about life, or live it. Whatever it is, whatever you goals and dreams are… you can either take action and commit, or not. The way you live your life is a choice. Happiness is a choice, your choice.
In my darkest days I held to the thought that better days lay ahead. 13 and 14 years young, cold, hungry and alone. When I was sleeping in the sauna on those unforgiving wood slats I focused on that thought. Our mindset ultimately controls our destiny. I am living those better days every day. I am now a proud mother of three, grandmother of two, and truly grateful for all the blessings life has given me. Write your own chapters, set your goals. Be fearless; and always, always be true to yourself.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Marnie Grundman, who has devoted her life to de-stigmatizing runaways and homeless youth. She also speaks on topics including child abuse, sex trafficking and healing from trauma. Submit your own story here, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.
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