Melissa Lugo – Defying Odds

Written by Victoria Berryhill
On November 5th, 2016, Melissa Lugo bravely told the crowd at the Austin Children’s Shelter Gala about her life before living at Austin Children’s Shelter. She also revealed how much living at the shelter meant to her. The following post is an accompaniment to that speech. You can watch the full video of her speech here or below. 

Thank you. Thank you for the warm welcome and the opportunity for me to tell my story and share my experience with Austin Children’s Shelter.

I have trouble remembering my childhood.  I’m told that is common for people who have had a traumatic childhood. I do know that I was raised by my uncle, Juan, and his wife, Maria.

Living with Juan and Maria

I lived there with my brother, Isaac, and Juan and Maria’s four biological children.  I grew up thinking that Juan was my dad.  When I was about seven years old, my sister, or my cousin actually, told me that he was not my dad and that my mom and dad were dead.

That’s about the time that I learned that my parents were murdered on my 2nd birthday.

I lived with my uncle and his wife, Maria, until I was about 10 or 11. Maria was very badly abused by Juan, emotionally and physically. So one day she finally left, and then life really started to fall apart. Maria packed up her belongings and her four biological children and left while Juan was at work. I didn’t even know about this until I got home from school and the house was locked. The other kids didn’t ever come home, so Isaac and I waited outside until about 8 p.m. when Uncle Juan got home. He went in the house and realized what had happened. This is where things get fuzzy. Somehow, I ended up with living with Maria.

Living with Maria

The first night that I was with her she slapped me in the face. My brother was upset and defended me. She then called the cops. My brother went to live back with my uncle, but I somehow was stuck with Maria.

I was put in a dog house with big, mean dogs, and I once remember being locked into a pick-up tool box.

Maria and her daughters were very abusive to me. I can recall being woken up in the night only to be locked in the closet for the rest of the night. I was put in a dog house with big, mean dogs, and I once remember being locked into a pick-up tool box.

Maria would kick me out of the house on several occasions, and then call the police to report me as a runaway, that’s how I ended up on probation. Eventually, after so many times, my probation officer believed that I wasn’t running away and Maria admitted to not wanting me at home and that’s why she called the cops. That’s when I entered foster care, at the age of 11.

Surviving in Foster Care

I am not even able to count the number of placements I had, but I can recall living in: Lometa, Lampasas, Desoto, Belton, Waco, Killeen, Taylor, Tyler, Grand Prairie, Denton, and more.

I even spent some of that time back at Maria’s house. I eventually did run away from care. By the age 17, I had a boyfriend and two jobs: working at a Taco Cabana and a wood processing factory where I would work long hours, often until three, four, five o’clock in the morning.

Soon after that I was pregnant, and stuck in a domestic violence relationship.

My boyfriend at the time ran me over with a car, breaking my leg at 4 months pregnant.

So, I was avoiding my CPS worker so that they didn’t know about my leg, my pregnancy, and the abusive relationship that I was stuck in. I couldn’t avoid my case worker for long. He eventually demanded to see me and told me to consider going to a new placement.

Coming to ACS

I remember the day that I showed up at Austin Children’s Shelter. I was 17 years old and about 5 months pregnant. I was very cranky because I had been working until 4 a.m. that same morning. I was missing school and I was angry because my caseworker told me we were just going for a visit to this placement, but actually my caseworker was just dropping me off there.

Shortly after being at ACS, I learned how much of a blessing this placement was to my life.

But, that evening I met a very special person, Ms. Heather, who did my paperwork for me to stay at the shelter. I remember her so vividly because of her sweet spirit and welcoming smile.  She also gave me juice and snacks, and that’s important when you’re pregnant.

Shortly after being at ACS, I learned how much of a blessing this placement was to my life.

Living at ACS

Because of my previous experience at Taco Cabana, I found myself working as a manager of a Taco Cabana here.

I learned so much about how to be a great mom from the parenting and birthing classes offered at ACS, as well as through staff interactions and role modeling.

They taught me how to ride the city bus so that I could get around on my own.

And without the stress and struggle of paying rent, I was able to focus on high school, and earned my diploma in summer of 2013, just around the time my daughter was born.

With the support of ACS, I was able to start college full time. I earned my license to sell insurance and became a full-time agent at a major insurance company.

ACS paid for my driver’s education courses and took me to the DPS so that I was able to get my driver’s license. This may seem small to some people, but for me, it was huge as I was the first one in my family to do so.

After saving up from my job, I purchased, on my own, my first vehicle while living here.  ACS also helped with child care while I was working and in school.  Knowing that she was in a safe place while I was working on my obligations, set my heart at ease so I was able to focus on my education and employment goals.

The staff at ACS taught me things that a parent would teach you but also encouraged me to be independent and to not rely on others.

The thing that I loved about ACS, and that is different than other shelters, is that they give you a little freedom, rather than a typical lock-down facility. I was able to take walks, go grocery shopping on my own, go to whatever school I chose, and have a job, which was important to me.

They took the moms out to do fun activities like go to the Thinkery or to a movie. The staff were kind, and guided you instead of giving orders on what to do next. I also felt like an individual person while I was there and everything felt like a case-by-case basis.

Austin Children’s Shelter supported me while I lived there, as well as my transition out of the shelter when I outgrew their program.

Thriving on my own

Because of the life skills and progress I made at ACS, I was able to be prepared to live on my own. I now live in a two-bedroom apartment with my three-year-old daughter. I go to school full time and work part time. I plan to earn a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice by 2019.

I have been preparing for and hope to purchase my own home within a year.

I realized it’s not where I’ve been, but where I’m going; it’s not who I was in the past, but who I am today.  I am somebody. I learned to not let my past determine my future.

You never know when one kind act or one word of encouragement will change a life forever.  Thank you ACS and all the staff there that believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself.

Several of those staff are here tonight. Ms. Heather, and everyone else, if you would stand so we can all say thank you for everything you did for me and so many others like me.

I would like to introduce you to one more very special person in my life, my daughter…

This is Elena!  She is an “ACS baby.” But she is one that is loved, cared for and nurtured, and this is one baby who will have a beautiful life because of ACS!

Thank you for the support and help that got me here today.  I couldn’t have done it without you guys!