When Carissa Phelps was only 12 years old, her mother dropped her off at the juvenile hall in Fresno, California. She had been skipping school and running with a wild crowd, and her mother, who had ten other children to deal with in a broken home, had had enough. “I can’t control her,” she simply said before walking out.
Phelps sat in the lobby for three days waiting for a group home to take her. When one finally did, it wasn’t long before she ran away. She lived on the streets, scrounging for food and a place to sleep, and was kidnapped by a pimp who brutally raped her and sold her to countless johns. At one point after being forced to smoke crack, she called her mother for help; her mother refused.
When Phelps eventually made her way home (after the pimp was arrested), her family did not know how to help her, nor did they particularly show any concern for her wellbeing. She was a girl traumatically marked by her experiences, physically and emotionally as well as socially. “I felt like an oddball because everyone knew my story,” she says. “At times it felt like it was very dangerous, girls who wanted to fight me or make fun of me. It was that general feeling of not belonging.”
Phelps ran away from home and school over and over again, dabbled in drugs, was repeatedly raped, and got into trouble with the law. It was not until she was placed in a detention center, where she caught the attention of a caring counselor and later a teacher, that she got the extra attention she so desperately needed. They identified that Phelps had a fantastic aptitude for math, and they encouraged her to focus on her classroom work and write in a journal about her experiences.
Yet, she still continued to struggle after her release, with no home base or family support. Finally, she settled in at an alternative high school, where another kind teacher gave her a safe place to study and sleep. She went on to college and then, almost miraculously, graduated in 2007 from UCLA with a law degree and an MBA. Today she is a youth advocate, attorney, and motivational speaker—and she has just published a book about her life story, Runaway Girl: Escaping Life on the Streets, One Helping Hand at a Time.
Phelps says she encourages teachers and administrators to look out for the kids who look most desperate, the ones who are usually written off. Don’t just gossip about the teenage girl caught under the bleachers with a boy—ask her if she is okay. And elementary teachers, note your students’ appearance. As a small child, Phelps says, she would have appreciated a teacher noticing that she was coming to school dirty. “We weren’t homeless, but we were barely making it,” she says. “It seemed like hygiene wasn’t a priority, so we’d go to school dirty and be made fun of for that.”
Feeling like an outcast at school, she says, will make kids not want to stay.
[My counselor] sat me down, made eye contact, and gave me time to say what’s going on with me.
“Sometimes we miss the boat on what they need,” she says. She says one of the reasons why she didn’t want to go back to school in high school was because she had a crooked tooth that made her ashamed. Once it was fixed, she had a little more confidence. “I like alternative forms of intervention for a kid in crime—ask him or her what they need to be brought back in. Sometimes it could be a cosmetic thing that is affecting emotions,” she says. “Braces do not cost as much as locking someone up for rest of life.”
Phelps says she feels very fortunate that a handful of caring adults took the time to help her when she was a struggling teenager. “[My counselor] sat me down, made eye contact, and gave me time to say what’s going on with me,” she says. “So many kids don’t have that with anyone.” She adds that as a youth advocate, she feels like her only job is to make kids feel valuable.
“I try to make eye contact, learn names, hug them, extract personal information,” she says. “I try my best to make an impact.”
For her, she says, education was a ticket through the door. But, she wants to make it clear that even if a child, especially a dropout, doesn’t show an aptitude for school, it is important to still make sure they know they are important and valued in society—and help them feel excited about their future despite their past. “They are educated with life experiences not necessarily classroom,” she says. “We don’t have to devalue that.”
Kristin Kloberdanz is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. She has written for Time, the Chicago Tribune and Forbes.com about everything from economic crises and political snafus to best summer beach reads.