I still remember that February of ’09, after 10 years living in Highbridge Projects. The home I knew was empty and the moving truck was full. My mother always said she would never move back to Harlem but after separating from my father, 3 daughters, and a disabled brother in her care, the walls held too many memories. Personally, I’m a half-breed as far as ” where I’m from ” goes. C-H-E-L-S-E-A, you hear the name aloud and you’re looking to see a “Blankita” as my grandmother would say it, a white girl. And growing up, I matched the name. My older sister Naijha had long black hair, slim, always social, with light complexion. I was fair skinned with long dark blonde hair, chubby with an almost permanent serious face. If we didn’t look so much alike, you wouldn’t think we were related. We’re Ying and Yang, the sun and the moon, complete opposites but completely dependent on each other. For one to set, the other needs to the rise.
By the time I was 13, my sister 15, the El Barrio Streets had a hold on her, which meant it was up to me to be the big sister, for Naijha and my younger sister Sa’Mya. Every few weeks my mother would ease up and let her stay in the house but they always ended up arguing and she’d leave again. For years my sister would be out all day and night, never home. I’d bring her clothes, money, whatever she needed, even when we fought. My younger sister Sa’Mya and I on the other hand, we’re 9 years apart and all we did was argue and fight. It was up to me to pick up my younger sister almost everyday, make sure she did her homework, ate, took a bath and went to bed on time, while my mother went to school in the evenings. She usually cooked or left money for take-out and asked us how our days went before she left. On weekends I would go up to my aunt Natalie’s house in New Rochelle. Most of the time to babysit my 3 younger cousins but I can’t deny that I loved it up there. She lived in a newly built Donald Trump building “The Avalon”. It had a gym, and a pool in the building. New Roc City was literally within eyes distance from the apartment and I got paid every time I went. I always admired my mother’s “work for it” attitude and her dedication to her family. I also admired my aunt’s versatility and her hunger for the lavish life.
By 16, I had been in 2 different high schools. Although I was great academically, when I applied myself, lateness has been an issue for me my whole life. I got in with a crowd at Marta Valle High School. We would show up late and leave early. We’d cut school, go to each other’s houses, and get high and socialize. Melissa was the 2nd oldest, she was a booster and Soho was only a 20-minute walk from the school. The first time I got in trouble with the law, we were all in Bloomingdales boosting True Religion Jeans. We’d all leave separately but they caught my friend and I. She fought them so they arrested her. I was so embarrassed I followed the orders of store officials. They took my picture, then handcuffed me and called my mother. She was infuriated. The only thing I was honestly mad about was the fact that I had someone waiting to buy the size jeans I got that day and instead I got caught. They told me I was banned for 7 years from Macy’s and Bloomingdales. A few weeks later I got a $500 fine in the mail. We all stopped hanging out as much and I started actually going to school and doing well.
Spring 2013, swiping cards and scamming had just started getting really popular. All over Instagram and Facebook was “Turn $50 into $500, $100 into $1000” and everyone had a different story about who they knew in the bank or check cashing place and how they would wire money into your account. After a few months of picking up my grades I cut school again with my friend Alexandra. I had seen Alex and her boyfriend in action plenty of times so when she brought up “making money” I knew what she was up to. All I had to do was get a credit card and that was $500 off the back. I was doing all right selling Ecstasy and Percocet pills, so I was not interested at first. It wasn’t until I told my friend Rob that I decided to call Alexandra back. He told me about the time he’d came up with cards and went home to $2,500 in his account that day. I was sold. The last day of regents I went to meet Rob and go up to the Bronx to meet up with Alex. She gave us $500 each for the 2 cards that worked. We all went our separate ways. By the time I got home I threw up 3 times, the guilt was sinking in. I told my mother I would stay out of trouble.
There was banging on the door at 8:30AM on a Saturday. I had been up for hours and my mother jumped out of bed like she had been waiting for someone. It was a detective looking for me. He wanted to question me about a robbery case. Once I heard Augusto’s name it all clicked. The last name on the cards were Augusto and come to find out she was an old lady in Rob’s building who he would run errands for daily. I was questioned, fingerprinted, and got my picture taken. My mom brought me food in the precinct, but she was infuriated. I went to bookings and it started as a Grand Larceny charge, after 2 more court dates and a review of the evidence against me with my lawyer, I pled guilty to Identity Theft and was given 5 years probation. It felt like a lot of people around me had lost trust and even respect for me. I had stopped talking to a few “friends” because I felt they weren’t there for me like before.
By the beginning of August I was 17, kicked out of my mother’s house, dropped out of high school, on 5 year probation & my now ex-boyfriend had just been arrested. I was staying with my grandmother when my probation officer referred me to a program called ARCHES. I started 2 weeks after my 18th birthday. I went in open minded. It was one of the hardest points of my life. I had a heavy heart but always left feeling like my spirit had been lifted. Ultimately, ARCHES motivated me to finish school and I got my G.E.D on the first try, thanks to my teachers Ms. Penza, Mr. Figueroa and Ms. Gomez. I even got a job over the summer at Metropolitan Hospital. At 16, I thought I would be a teacher or a writer, at 17 I was hopeless and at 18 I lost direction. Now at 19 I am trying hard to stay on the right path.
Often times people pity themselves once they’ve gotten into trouble with the law. However, programs like ARCHES help show us that even though we have fallen, we can always get back up. The ARCHES mentors were always reaching out a hand to help me up, provided a shoulder to cry on and really listened and provided support. ARCHES introduced me to great mentors. The 4As taught me how to be a great mentor and facilitator. Everyone complains about “society” but we need to be proactive in shaping it, especially the youth, because it is our future on the line. I just want the opportunity to be able to do it for other young people in my shoes.