By Holly Austin Smith — From her column Speaking Out in the Washington Times Communities
RICHMOND, VA, February 26, 2013 — Early one bright, hot August morning, during the first week of second grade, my stepfather picked me up and tossed me out the front door. I hit the ground hard, instinctively protecting my face, breaking my fall with my hand.
As I struggled to catch my breath, I realized two things: I was hurt, and the kids on the school bus out in front of my house were watching me. All those eyes were aimed right at me.
I looked at my mother, standing slightly behind my stepfather. She just stared calmly, her arms crossed over her pregnant belly. She said nothing, did not move, acting as though nothing had happened.
“Mom?” I said, waiting for the comfort and dust-me-off that didn’t come.
“Get up and go to school!” Steve barked. I got the message: This was all my fault. I had it coming. I should not have caused problems. “Get up!”
I staggered to my feet and made my way to the bus. As the bus door wheezed shut, I saw Marcy, a girl who lived up the street, standing in the aisle waiting for me. She was one of those junior-high girls a second grader dreams of becoming. Almost a teenager, she wore makeup, had a cool backpack, and didn’t talk to me like I was a stupid little kid. Marcy led me into the empty seat beside her while I squinched my face tight, determined not to cry. To show weakness would have been like putting a target on my back. I was concentrating so fiercely on toughening it out that Marcy noticed before I did that my hand was bloody.
Thus begins Runaway Girl, a recently-released memoir by Carissa Phelps, survivor-turned-activist for homeless and runaway youth. Carissa is enormously passionate about helping others. From visiting youth detention facilities to mentoring adult survivors towards personal success, Carissa is a pivotal member of the movement to support homeless and runaway youth and to educate and advocate against child sex trafficking in America.
At 13 years old Carissa dropped out of school, believing she had only two options available to her: an early death or prison. Thanks to the persistence of a counselor and a math teacher in juvenile hall, Carissa changed her mind about what her future might hold. A decade later, she went on to earn a bachelor’s degree summa cum laude in mathematics from California State University (CSU) Fresno. After teaching high school math for one year, Carissa went on to pursue her dream of becoming an advocate for the rights of others. In 2007, she earned a juris doctorate from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Law, as well as an MBA from the UCLA Anderson School of Management.
In 2008, David Sauvage, an MBA classmate, narrated Carissa’s amazing “juvy-to-justice” story in an award-winning 23-minute documentary entitled, Carissa. The film continues to inspire troubled youth and their advocates to look for the potential in themselves and others. Carissa’s passion, seen both in the film and in real life, brings hope to survivors. What began as a platform to share one inspiring story has grown into a movement toward embracing an often invisible group in society — runaway and homeless youth.
In 2012, Carissa Phelps added chief executive officer (CEO) of Runaway Girl, FPC to her list of titles, which includes attorney, crisis counselor, mentor, and motivational speaker. Runaway Girl, FPC is a flexible purpose corporation based in California.
“Runaway Girl, FPC is a hybrid company,” Carissa explained, “It is a for-profit with the charitable purpose of creating employment opportunities for runaways, former runaways, and survivors. We’re partnering with local survivors to provide them with [opportunities to take] their experience, knowledge, and networks and put them to the best use in their communit[ies]…
“We have come to a point in the survivor movement when we need each other more than ever,” Carissa said, encouraging other survivors to join Runaway Girl, FPC, “We need to support one another in order to take hold of this awesome opportunity in front of us to capture the hearts, minds, and spirits of often burnt out, frustrated, and overworked systems. We’re here to make systems run more efficiently by equipping community members with the tools necessary to make an impact, not just in the life of one, but in the lives of many.”
Runaway Girl, FPC offers two workshops:
CPR: Community Protocol for Response (1-day workshop)
The 1-day CPR workshop is designed for all members of a community. This training covers the basics (or A-B-Cs) of commercial sexual exploitation of children: Awareness, Belief, and Capacity.
EMT: Empowerment Model Training (2-day workshop)
The 2-day training goes a step further and is intended for anyone in regular contact with youth who are at risk of commercial sexual exploitation.
“Both the 1-day CPR and the 2-day EMT [trainings] are offered exclusively by Runaway Girl, FPC trainers,” Carissa stated, “The trainings are interactive; engaging; and, most importantly, will lead to community action. Runaway Girl, FPC works with local and regional trainers to bring the most relevant information to every community, and [to] connect survivors who are actively working in the movement with networks that will strengthen, support, and improve their local work.”
Carissa’s journey includes letting go of a history of abuse, neglect, abandonment, and trauma. By sharing her own story of healing and reconciliation, she inspires others to do the same. I continue to be inspired by Carissa Phelps, a mentor and personal friend. If you are an advocate, parent, teacher, or caring professional for troubled youth, I encourage you to share her story with those kids in your lives.