Teens Helping Teens
The teen years are tough by their very nature. But throw in a few extra obstacles – a family break-up, poverty or an illness – and adolescence can be overwhelming.
Jordyn, Caitlyn and Jonathan are three Bay Area young people who faced more than their share of hard knocks. When her parents divorced, Jordyn started a slow descent into depression. Caitlyn struggled with a genetic condition. Jonathan’s parents were in and out of jail.
But instead of staying down, these three teens learned to cope with their unusually difficult circumstances. They got help and grew stronger. But what is really impressive is how they’ve taken their experiences and turned them into a means of aiding others.
Two of these teens reached out to Bay Area Parent to share their messages and connect with people who could use their support. The third was recommended by a nonprofit group that helps low-income teens rise above their circumstances. All three are now cheerleaders and role models for others.
Here are their stories:
Jordyn Ball, 18, of Morgan Hill has created a blog for people with depression. It offers words of support and wisdom that can only come from someone who has been there.
And boy, was she there. When she was 8, her parents divorced, and she began to fight constantly with her dad. Due to the stress, she developed a nerve illness, and while in the hospital for several days, she became depressed. When she was bullied in the ninth grade, she began cutting herself.
“I cried every night thinking there was no future for me,” Jordyn says. “All I wanted to do was cut and sleep.”
Family and friends didn’t know what to do and would just tell her to buck up.
“I always had people telling me to ‘get over it, snap out of it, stop feeling sorry for yourself, it's all in your head...’” Jordyn writes in her blog. “Telling someone who is depressed to ‘just get over it’ is like telling a blind person to ‘look harder.’”
At one point, she quit taking her medication and was hospitalized for depression. Being away from family and home was terrifying. But the time in the mental hospital made her realize she had to make some changes to get better. She entered an intense two-month outpatient program for anxious and depressed teens at El Camino Hospital: After-School Program Interventions and Resiliency Education, or ASPIRE.
Even with help from ASPIRE and her mother, Jordyn says recovery from depression was “gnarly.”
“One day I'd be OK, happy, laughing with my friends,” she says. “The next day someone being mean would say something and totally break me. I'd relapse and cut again, but then I'd go to ASPIRE and talk it out.”
At ASPIRE, she learned how to bring herself back up. When classmates made fun of her for the way she liked to dress, for example, she would think of what she loves the most: her mom, stepdad, rabbit and her favorite pastime, fashion modeling.
“I learned more (at ASPIRE) about how to handle different situations, how to deal with my mental health, how to resist the urges, how to be myself and be okay not being perfect, than I would've learned my whole life,” she says. “ASPIRE was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Jordyn is back to fashion modeling and high school. She will graduate this year. But her biggest motivation is now taking what she learned and passing it forward.
She still attends ASPIRE weekly to stay healthy and inspire teens new to the program, and she recently appeared in a pamphlet on ASPIRE success stories.
She also pours her heart into her blog, where she encourages others and tells how she survived the rough times. Upbeat messages pop up all over her pages, such as “Confidence is not ‘They will like me.’ Confidence is ‘I will be fine if they don’t.’”
“I've talked to so many teens, and I've actually had people start crying and telling me because of me they didn't give up,” Jordyn says. “People need to be aware of mental illness and know that they are not alone. That is what I'm here for, and I'll never quit.”
For Caitlyn McElligott, 17, of Redwood City, the challenges began even before she was born. As a baby, she was slow to meet her milestones, and her parents had her genetically tested at age 5. They got their answer: Trisomy X, a genetic condition in which females have an extra X chromosome and which sometimes causes speech and learning impairments.
Her parents told her the news in a matter-of-fact way, and it didn’t bother her at the time.
“They just said that everyone has stuff they have to deal with,” she says. “Some kids are from poor families, some are sick, some are in wheelchairs. I have an extra X chromosome.”
As she grew older, though, Trisomy X began taking its toll. She struggled in school with reading, writing and speech. Kids bullied her and sometimes treated her as if she was stupid. But Caitlyn found ways to compensate, such as listening to audio books of reading assignments and going to teacher office hours.
“I have the same ability to learn as others, it just takes more time,” Caitlyn explains. “Longer for stuff to sink in and longer to do my homework. I don’t give up, though, because I know that I just need to work a little harder and a little longer than my peers.”
A few years ago, Caitlyn was researching Trisomy X for a school paper and was unable to find much information. One thing shocked her: some doctors still were advising parents to consider aborting babies with Trisomy X.
At that point, she decided to create a website on the condition. Caitlyn says she wanted it to be not only a source of information, but to “help people understand that having Trisomy X does not make it so a woman cannot go on and do great things.”
Her site provides links to studies, articles and books. It also lists common traits of females with Trisomy X, emphasizing the positive, such as their tall and lean stature. In a video on the site, Caitlyn describes the condition:
“Trisomy X gives us learning disabilities, height, a fold in your eyelid, speech disabilities. I have speech problems. I also have ADD, so if this video is everywhere, I’m sorry,” she says, smiling. “And most of us are really nice people.”
Caitlyn shares her successes on the video in hope of inspiring others. Since middle school, she’s gone from special education to mainstream classes, and is tackling four advanced-placement courses as a senior this year.
“I’m going off to college soon, and I’m going to live a normal life,” she says.
Women and girls around the world who have Trisomy X or believe they do have reached out to Caitlyn as a result of her site.
“My goal was to reach a million people with my message of awareness,” Caitlyn says. “I’m happy to say that I exceeded my goal and am working on the next million.”
Jonathan Szkup-Valdez, 21, grew up in a poor, drug-ravaged neighborhood in East Oakland. Both parents were undocumented immigrants with felonies, so it was hard for them to find work. When one parent was at home, the other was typically in jail. Jonathan says that never bothered him until the day a friend asked where his dad was.
“I was stunned, not because I hadn’t seen my dad in weeks, but because I couldn’t answer this simple question,” Jonathan writes in an email interview.
Somehow, Jonathan still managed to do well in school. “Though my belly was empty most nights, my mind was full of dreams of success, and this motivated me as a student,” he explains.
Still, he couldn’t avoid the reality of his neighborhood. Friends and neighbors, even those who Jonathan had admired, often turned to addiction and ended up behind bars. In this environment, he often got into trouble, or “unfortunate situations,” as he calls them.
“I will never forget the day, July 3, when I was riding home, and shots were fired my way,” he says. “The bullets whistled past my ears, but thankfully I was alright.”
Jonathan says his dad’s absence, the financial instability and all the pressures of being a teen in East Oakland nearly pushed him to a meltdown.
About this time, Jonathan learned of Students Rising Above. SRA is a nonprofit in San Francisco that helps promising Bay Area students from impoverished backgrounds get into and succeed at college and beyond. Jonathan applied as a high school junior, and based on his application, grades and an interview, SRA accepted him into the program.
For Jonathan, it was a turning point. Meeting his mentor, whom he found inspiring, and learning what SRA had to offer – tutoring, application help, financial aid, internships and more – cemented his decision to go to college.
With financial aid and scholarships making it possible, Jonathan was accepted and enrolled as a political science and history major at Colby-Sawyer College in rural New Hampshire, a long way from Oakland. He is excelling there and expects to graduate this year. His next step is law school and he sees himself running for office someday.
Though he doesn’t have to, Jonathan often comes home to Oakland during school breaks. “Jonathan takes it upon himself to give back by providing guidance to other young students that may be facing similar challenges as he did,” his SRA advisor, Marisol Curiel, says.
He has made several presentations locally about stopping human trafficking, a cause that’s important to him. He also guides and encourages younger SRA students whenever he can, such as when he recently helped a fellow SRA peer settle into his internship at the Port of Oakland, where Jonathan previously interned.
Though Jonathan says he isn’t exactly sure where his career path will lead, he knows he wants to come back to his community and “transform it into a vibrant, peaceful place with grassroots organization.”
“I find myself constantly asked, ‘Why do you come back here? There’s nothing here.’” Jonathan says. He responds: “To give back to those who have given so much to me.”
Angela Geiser is the editor of Teen Focus and a frequent contributor to Bay Area Parent.