A Visit from Carissa Phelps
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Amy Cheney, Write to Read Librarian, Alameda County Library (CA), Juvenile Hall July 11, 2012
First time author Carissa Phelps was 12 when her mother dropped her off at Fresno’s Juvenile Hall and drove away. Since Phelps hadn’t committed a crime, the authorities couldn’t formally book her, so she slept in the lobby for three consecutive nights. She was soon placed in a group home, and promptly ran away—beginning a cycle of incarceration, living on the streets, and human sexual trafficking that’s familiar to many of the young women I work with. Indeed, statistics show that more than one-third of them are approached by pimps within 48 hours of being on the streets.
This is the kind of story that my girls can relate to and want to read, but since they often encounter untrustworthy people, they wanted to be make sure that Carissa’s story was for real. Meeting the author let them to do just that. Her book, Runaway Girl: Escaping Life on the Street One Helping Hand at a Time (Viking) was released in early July. Fortunately, I had galleys which I distributed to the girls before Carissa’s visit.
Shortly after Carissa’s arrival, 23 girls with pink sweatshirts and grumpy faces file in and mostly slouch in our burgundy plastic chairs. They check out Carissa, a diminutive, appears-to-be-white girl with a big smile and comfortable attitude. The jury is definitely out as to if she’s going to cut it. A few girls have read the galleys and are holding them to their chests. I ask one of them to introduce Carissa to the group.
“This is Carissa,” says Tiona, shyly (the girls’ names are fictitious). “I read her book and I can really relate to her. Her book is great,” she finishes confidently.
Carissa begins talking about belonging. “You do belong,” she says to the group. “You belong in school. You belong at college. You belong in the courtroom on the other side than you are currently sitting on.
“I thought I’d end up dead or in prison. I remember when I was 19,” continues Carissa. “I was surprised I was alive. Now I’m 35, and I’m still surprised! That’s how terrifying my life was. But you-underneath your county clothes-there is a unique girl that’s special and has her own story to tell.” As Carissa speaks, the girls’ interest is stirred. Throughout the 90 minute visit, the girls perk up more and more as Carissa connects to each and every one with caring and generosity.
Not only is this a positive experience for the girls—one that motivates them to read—but it’s also a positive shared experience with the adults in the room. The staff, who was at first bored and wary, become increasingly interested as Carissa speaks about the counselor and teacher who literally changed her life by encouraging her, recognizing her potential, and mentoring her through the hard times. (I love that Carissa has included sample thank-you notes in the back of her book—excellent move.)
By lunchtime, 18 of the 23 girls can’t wait to read the book. Since four read it before the visit, that means only one girl hasn’t expressed any interest. After the girls file out, shaking Carissa’s hand or receiving a hug from her, she goes to the housing unit where the girls live and sits on one of the weird, blue foam “couches” and talks individually to those girls have more to say and are open to her advice. After talking to Carissa for more than 20 minutes, Malika gets up with tears in her eyes. “Amy, she cares!” she says to me, giving me a hug.
I receiveg this email from a teacher soon after the presentation ends:
Thank you so much for bringing Carissa Phelps in to talk and share her story with our girls. I had not read her story but I know that several of my students are living the same kinds of stories on the “outs.” I found her genuine, inspiring, and so deeply expressive of the incredible traumas and redemption that she has encountered. The very touching moment that she shared with her juvenile-hall math teacher was an incredible reminder to me of the special role that… teachers play in our students’ lives.
Wow! That was amazing!!! I can tell that this presentation will continue to resonate with our students for the days ahead.
Truly moved, Elaine
Carissa now has a law and business degree from UCLA, and her story has been featured in many places, including in USA Today, on ABC News, and in an award-winning documentary film, Carissa. You can learn more about her at http://carissaphelps.com, and for more about her visit with our girls, see the Contra Costa Times’ coverage.
What’s most important to me, and what really matters, is that she is the real deal and through her book and visit, our young women got to experience the results of her transformation firsthand. It was a chance for them to consider a bigger vision of what their place in the world might be—the importance of their experience, the possible journey ahead, their belonging and specialness in the world (after all, they were reading and talking about the book, even before it was published), and hopefully, it’s one of many moments in which they feel loved and are appreciated for who they genuinely are.
See SLJ’s Adult Books 4 Teens blog for a review of Runaway Girl.