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My story begins when I was only 3 years old. My mom moved my sister and me away from an unsupportive family in Massachusetts to live in Austin. We had no contacts, no money, and no place to live. My mom was so strong!  After moving between shelters and housing projects, she built a house for us in East Austin with the help of Habitat for Humanity. Our home was christened with songs, cheers and love by future neighbors and new friends.

 When it came time for the finishing touches, she asked what color we wanted the house to be. “Silver and Gold!” we shouted. She didn’t really go for that, so she had the house painted our second choice of colors, pink and purple. My mom would take us to the nearby Carver Library where we’d get to choose several books to take home and read. When we were done, we’d take turns sharing book reports, which she always recorded on our old camcorder. Somewhere in that pink and purple house are old videos of me and my sister in afro puffs doing our library presentations.

 And then life happened. Just after my acceptance into Breakthrough in 6th grade, my mother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The doctors tried many combinations of medications, but my marvel of a mom was now incapacitated. My sister and I, barely teenagers, had to familiarize ourselves with public transportation and the many recipes that could be made using Ramen noodles. Many kids might think we were living the dream – no authority, no rules – but it definitely wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I knew something was wrong and felt sad and helpless to do anything about it. Without my mother helping to check my homework as she always had, I struggled to even advance from 7th to 8th grade.

 Luckily, my Breakthrough advisor, Marisol, saw the drastic change in me and stepped in to help. She visited me every other week at Kealing Middle School and did her best to make sure I went to after-school tutoring (believe me, I didn’t want to) and turn in my homework assignments on time (I didn’t want to do that, either). She never gave up on me. I soon become more involved in Breakthrough. I’d come for after school tutoring, attend every Saturday program, or just stop in to say “Hi” when my bus happened to pass by the office. The staff really took the time to get to know me and my interests and talents. While our conversations might have started off about my low grade in English, they soon became about all that was happening in my life. In the Breakthrough staff, I found a second family with whom I was able to discuss my developing understanding of the world, from my views on public education to interests that I should pursue as a young adult.

 Having that level of communication with Marisol and the rest of the Breakthrough staff was certainly a salvation later in my high school years. One day in 10th grade, with the bills eclipsing the amount my mom received in disability checks, the lights and water were turned off.  My sister and I went to live with our dad while our mom stayed in a shelter for a number of months. My new living situation isolated me from my closest friends at school, but what really got to me was the fact that I would only see my mom for a few hours each Friday. I fell into a deep depression that, at times, rivaled my mother’s. It was at that time that Breakthrough provided me the one spark that kept me going. Knowing what I loved to do, they encouraged me to apply for a semester of art classes at the Arthouse at Jones Center.  My participation in these classes with great artists was a turning point. I had found my passion for art and fashion design. It wasn’t long before I was splitting my free time between Breakthrough tutoring, my art classes, and local fashion shows. Because of my relationship with Breakthrough during the years that my mother was the most ill, I was able to center my identity not on my life’s adversity, but on my talents and interests.

 However, all my creativity in the world didn’t overcome the low grades I had accumulated in 10th and 11th grade. In fact, I wasn’t initially granted admission to any Texas colleges. With only a 2.6 Grade Point Average, none of the admissions offices even peeked at the essays I had so thoughtfully crafted. When the Breakthrough staff heard about this, they immediately dialed up one of the universities I applied to and had the head of admissions read my essay. She said it was the best she’d read all year. I was admitted to the University of North Texas on the spot!

 Tonight, I stand here before you as a proud graduate of the University of North Texas with a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts Degree in Fashion Design and minors in Sociology and Mexican American Studies. I have long shaken the shadow of depression from my earlier years and am filled with excitement about my bright future. I am proud to say that my college degree is allowing me to pursue my dreams. I am an independent fashion stylist and proud owner of my own business, called Project 430, where I design and manufacture handbags – be sure to check my website out at project430.com! I am even more proud to report that my mother is doing extremely well as she has returned to being her energetic, fun-loving self. I am so grateful to Breakthrough that I made the 200 mile journey from my home in Denton to share with you my story tonight. That gratitude also caused me to dedicate two of my summers in college to teaching younger Breakthrough students during the summer program. I can’t wait to see them at their college graduation in the coming years.

 As I reflect on my past, I am thankful for everything my families – both my mom and Breakthrough – have given me on my path to college and beyond. I couldn’t have done it without them. From the bottom of my heart – thank you.