The State House grounds were in perfect form a few weeks ago as a steady flow of teenagers filled the steps just behind the Governor and other officials. Wreaths and ribbons were hung and it seemed everyone in Columbia gathered around a towering, unlit Christmas tree waiting to kick-off the Christmas season. As the festivities began voices of the Governor’s Carolighting Choir echoed down the steps and through the busy streets of Columbia. The sounds of Christmas had arrived, and among the choir there was one voice that sounded particularly sweet. The voice of a child from Epworth, a 15 year old young lady named Tori.*
Tori arrived at Epworth just after Labor Day of this year. Before arriving at Epworth Tori had experienced a very unstable childhood. She moved from place to place, was forced to assume many adult responsibilities at a young age, and suffered physical abuse. These traumatic childhood experiences compounded over time, and by the time she arrived at Epworth she had become a very shy and reserved young lady. She rarely spoke, was very timid, and frequently withdrew from crowds to be by herself.
In those first days after her arrival, her Epworth cottage staff looked for ways to spend one-on-one time with her. One afternoon they took her for a walk around the Epworth campus so that she could become more familiar with her surroundings. As they went from building to building that afternoon, Tori showed little interest in seeing the cottages, the learning center, or even the gym. However, when they came out of the gym and the church steeple came into view, Tori’s eyes lit up and her posture straightened.
“When can I go to church?” she asked. “I haven’t been to church in a long time and my relationship with God is close. When can I go?” Tori then immediately met “Pastor Meg,” Epworth’s minister who helped her start to open up about her life. From that afternoon, Tori began developing a deep bond with the Epworth staff.
Those initial conversations in her first few weeks led to deeper and serious moments where Tori shared her deep seeded worries about her circumstances. She shared the on-going concerns about what was going to happen to her and continued to dread the heavy responsibilities that were placed on her shoulders at such a young age. In those deep conversations, the staff at Epworth listened and comforted her. They encouraged her to let loose of those heavy worries that may be weighing her down and focus her attention on self-care. It was time for her to enjoy being a teenager. Tori heard this advice and took it heart.
A few days later, Tori unexpectedly signed up to participate in the campus talent show organized by a group of volunteers from Midtown Fellowship Church. Her cottage staff were shocked. She was beginning to open up to the adults in the cottage, but Tori was still very withdrawn among her peers. When the Friday night show arrived the entire campus gathered in the church for a night of celebration. Lots of small groups of residents shared their voices and special talents. Then, the host called Tori forward. Instead of a small group or even a duo, she stood at the front of the church all by herself. As the music started Tori belted out the most heartfelt and beautiful gospel solo of the night. The performance brought everyone to their feet and at the end of the song a smile beamed across Tori’s face.
Over the next few months, Tori looked for other ways to get involved. She joined the JRTOC and choir at Dreher High School. She applied herself to her new classes at school and attended tutoring sessions after school at Epworth. She made time to attend a college fair at school and signed up for more information about almost every college she find. She attended life skills workshops to gain financial education with Wells Fargo and career and skills exploration with Goodwill Industries to prepare herself for life after high school. She plugged in to Epworth’s church and started helping with worship, participating in a praise dance team, and even leading devotions and Sunday School lessons.
As she finds her new rhythm and begins to blossom in so many ways, Tori reflects on her young life in a way that few fifteen year olds can do. She looks at her childhood and wishes things were different, but is thankful that she is now in a place where she can change the direction of her life. She values education and the opportunities that it will present to her as she grows up. She wants to go to college and make a better life for herself. She wants her own family one day and she never wants her future children to experience the life that she once knew. She still loves her family very much, and some form of family reunification may still be possible for her one day, but for now she is excited to have a fresh new start.
“God has a plan for my life and this is just a season,” she recently shared. “I am going to use the resources I have and make the most of it.”
In these last three months she has seen so much positive change. She dances almost every week in worship, loves being in the choir at school, and is making the Honor Roll at school. In November, she marched in the Veterans Day Parade with her JROTC unit. She is doing all of these things will a smile and a spirit that is engaging and inspiring her peers and the adults at Epworth alike.
And a few weeks ago her new confidence was on full display for all to see. On that cool early winter night on the steps of the State House when the Governor announced the lighting of the tree, Tori stood proudly behind him singing perfectly on pitch. She wore a smile from ear to ear as the bright lights reflected across her face. As she sang, she knew that this is the Christmas she had finally found her voice.