Sunshine Center lets Grace shine

Published 12:04 am Monday, May 30, 2011

Eric Shelton | The Natchez Democrat — Seventeen-year-old Grace unwraps gifts at a “going to college” shower thrown for her at the Sunshine Children’s Center in Natchez Thursday.

NATCHEZ — With her bright smile, polite “thank yous” and bear hugs, you would never guess the circumstances 17-year-old Grace lived through before she arrived at the Sunshine Children’s Center.

Grace lit up as she unwrapped gift boxes at a “going to college” shower thrown for her at the shelter for abused and neglected children Thursday.

Ever since Grace’s father died and her mother abandoned her when she was 5, Grace has moved around living with different foster families, some of which abused her.

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Grace’s mother has a mental illness and lives in a mental institution, and the rest of her family does not want anything to do with her, she said.

“No place wants a 17-year-old,” said Grace, a Gulfport native.

Shelter Director Matilda Stephens said Grace has made a 180 transformation since she met her two years ago.

“Her placement sheet was so bad that there was not a facility in the state that would take her; we took her,” Stephens said.

Grace said she was emotionally confused when she arrived at the shelter for the first time, and Stephens remembers Grace as an angry person.

“Grace, when we got her, had slice marks all up and down her arms. She was abused by a foster family and angry, angry, angry,” Stephens said.

Grace said since she learned not to trust those in charge of her care, she found it hard to trust the staff at the Sunshine Shelter right off the bat.

“I thought (the people at the shelter) were the bad guy,” Grace said.

Then Stephens sat Grace down and tried to explain that the people at the shelter were her friends, not an enemy like some of those in her past that were supposed to care for her.

“I came here, and I saw people actually cared about me and wouldn’t let me be homeless like anyone else would,” Grace said.

When Grace’s three roommates at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College travel to their respective homes for Christmas vacation, Grace will visit the shelter on North Union Street, she said, because that’s the closest thing to a home that she’s got.

“This is more of a home than any foster home (she’s had). They don’t treat you like a client (at the shelter), they treat you like a family member,” Grace said.

Grace, who has already earned her GED, will move into her dorm June 30 to start her second semester at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. She has already completed her first semester online.

“We’re just really, really proud of her. She’s really smart,” Stephens said of Grace.

Grace will study pre-pharmacy classes to eventually become a pharmacist.

“I’ve always wanted to help people, and I don’t like blood so (pharmacy) is kind of in between,” Grace said.

Grace said she stays motivated to move on from her past and create a better life for herself not by ignoring what she has been through but from growing from it.

“My motivation is to learn from my mistakes and the mistakes of the people in my family,” she said.

She said knowing someone out there has it worse than she does also helps her stay focused. And support from everyone at the shelter and her boyfriend, Brian, help her look to a better future.

Grace said when she finishes school and gets a job, she hopes to be able make a donation to the Sunshine Shelter to give back to it a little of what it has given to her.

“Ms. Matilda works way too hard,” Grace said.

She said while she will miss the people, she is not too sad to leave because she knows she will be back.

Stephens said Grace is one a handful of children who have stayed at the shelter who she knows she will remain in contact.

One of the missions of the Sunshine Center is to seek out and nurture the innate goodness in every child who comes through, regardless of their past or what they have done, Stephens said.

“Grace is one of the best examples of what the shelter tries to do,” Stephens said.