2018, Jeff Gurney, HWRA, Rockwell HS, Awardee
In 1999, I was born to a drug addicted teenage girl on the streets of Haiti. I don’t know the date of my birth. I was told by adults that my mother named me, Jeffery. My memories of my mother are not good ones. Therapists have told me that bad memories are the ones we remember most, because our mind keeps them to protect us. I have a lot of horrible memories of the time I spent with my mother. We lived on the streets, rarely eating and never having anywhere to sleep or feel safe. She would go from man to man, sleeping with them in exchange for drugs. I have a vivid memory of a man being murdered in front of me. Those memories are still strong in my mind.
One day, when I was about four years old, my mother took me to a gate. She shoved me through the gate, told me she would be back soon and left. I never saw her again. A man came out and brought me to the orphanage. I was so happy to live in the orphanage, because I got food. Even though I slept on a concrete floor with a lot of other children and had only an oversized white t-shirt to wear, I felt like this was the best thing to happen to me. The orphanage was a good place, but they were poor, too. It was hard to get food. I remember getting to eat oatmeal once. We never got oatmeal, so it was a treat. I hadn’t eaten in a long time, so after I ate the oatmeal I threw it up. I bent down and at the vomit, because I was scared there would not be oatmeal to eat again.
Some time later I was adopted by a white couple from Utah. They became my family. I remember my first time with them. They bought me pizza and I was so hungry they had to force me to stop eating. I was badly malnourished. My stomach could not handle so much food and I threw up everything I had eaten.
Life was getting better for me, but I still had a lot to overcome. My new parents had to help me learn to speak English and how to sleep. I had never slept as a child, because I thought if I went to sleep then bad people would hurt me or kill me. I had endured so much trauma for so long, it had effected me mentally and physically. I also had some diseases contracted from my mother I needed health care for. On top of all this, I have a learning disorder. Learning takes me a lot longer than a normal person. I also have a bad stutter that I have had to work on.
Elementary school seems to have been the worst years in my road to learning how to be resilient. I never had friends. Somehow kids knew about the disease my mom gave me. Boys on the playground would call me “niger” and “stupid” every day. I remember once my teacher made me read in front of the class and I stuttered. One boy pretended to stutter and told me to hurry up. The entire class laughed at me.
I was so angry and so frustrated that learning was so much harder for me. At one point I tried killing myself, because a boy in my class said I would be better off dead. I agreed and made a noose in my room. Luckily, my brother knocked on the door and stopped me. I went through five therapists and eventually got into some programs that helped me see that everyone has mountains to climb. They helped me belief that I could keep climbing my mountains.
Today, I am still seeing a therapist. I still work harder than any other student just to get passing grades. At night, I stay up late reading out loud to help make myself smarter and work on my stutter. Several days a week I volunteer at a treatment facility with other young boys who have had the same life experiences as me. I talk to them and mentor them. I know they listen to me, because they know I have been through hard things, too.
There are still days I feel like a stupid child and I struggle with my speech. But, even when I have those hard days, I remember that those challenges make me who I am. My family’s motto has been, “I can. I will. I must”. This means that difficult times will come, but we will work on getting through them together. I have learned that by changing my mindset, I can change anything.
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