2016 Live Your Dream: Education and Training Awards for Women Finalists
Like so many SoroptimistLive Your Dream Award recipients, the 2016 finalists have faced unimaginable obstacles. They’ve endured darkness and heartache beyond belief. But despite the inconceivable challenges that would knock most down for good, these women have risen, embodying the true meaning of strength and perseverance.
Each is a warrior fighting for the dream of a brighter future. For these brave women, the path to victory is clear. Though they are on separate journeys in different parts of the world, their courage and unconquerable spirits connect them. Their inspiring stories serve as a reminder of just how much women can achieve with just a little bit of help.
Meet the 2016 Live Your Dream Award finalists. This year, Soroptimist is honored to award $10,000 to three passionate, hard-working, strong women: Terriea, Sandra and Esperanza.
Like many indigenous children in her part of Canada, Terriea Wadud of Vancouver was adopted at a young age. Her adoptive mother physically and emotionally abused her until Terriea was placed back into the child welfare system at the age of 12.
The chaos continued in the group homes in which she lived.
“I seemed to take on the role of the hero among the girls,” Terriea recalls. “If a girl was getting picked on, I would ‘protect’ her by any means, including being abusive with my language and physically threatening the instigator. When this became too much, I would run away to the streets of Toronto.”
A pretty girl with low self-esteem alone on the streets, Terriea was an ideal target for pimps and was then trafficked in the sex trade across Ontario. Police searched relentlessly for her, and after a brutal beating by her pimp, they met up with Terriea at the hospital and asked whether she was ready to charge him. Terriea, who had just learned she was pregnant with her pimp’s child, agreed to charge him.
At 16 years old and 8 months pregnant, she testified against her pimp. His lawyer viciously tried to portray her as a troubled young girl and the questioning was emotionally and physically exhausting. But her calm and honest testimony paid off and Terriea’s pimp received six and a half years of jail time.
When her daughter was born, Terriea vowed not to be anything like her adoptive mother. But her traumatic past made being a good mother difficult. She admits checking out emotionally, and sometimes physically, as a parent. She felt suicidal and turned to drugs and alcohol to numb her pain. With no formal education she wasn’t able to secure employment, so she remained in the sex industry as an exotic dancer.
At age 24, Terriea says she just couldn’t feel her worth. But then an opportunity presented itself and became the first step in turning her life around. She completed a university-entrance program called the Transitional Year at the University of Toronto. Terriea continued with a life-changing volunteer training program at Battered Women’s Support Services, where she was eventually hired as an outreach counselor and then the manager of a women’s safety and outreach program.
Supporting women and girls with similar traumatic histories and experiences of violence and abuse has helped Terriea heal her own traumatic past. Her ability to create and hold a safe space for women to share, counsel and explore problem-solving solutions has ignited her passion to pursue formal counselor training.
But just when things seemed to be getting on track, the program lost funding and Terriea was laid off. At the same time, she had a miscarriage and ended a three-year relationship. Not being able to afford rent on her own without an income, she and her children became homeless.
Rather than letting these obstacles send her into a downward spiral, Terriea took up meditation and chanting to move through her feelings. She also reconnected with her birth mother, which has helped her learn about her indigenous culture and spirituality, and brings her great comfort.
Now staying with friends, Terriea says she is determined to heal this cycle. She has accepted a temporary position with her previous employer, and is hopeful that it will lead to a full-time job.
The Live Your Dream Awards mean stability for Terriea and her family. She is using the awards to pay for her tuition, so that no matter what this next year has in store, she will not have to put her schooling on hold for financial reasons.
Terriea’s dream is to eventually start her own counseling/life coaching business.
“My prayers look a lot different today than when I was a little girl. There were many times being exploited on the streets or in my addiction I thought I was going to die and I didn’t care,” she said. “Now I have a purpose. I will continue to create a safe space for others to do their healing and transformational work. I will use my voice to share my story to inspire others to do the same. The Live Your Dream Awards will help me to further my growth, accountability and commitment to be a transformational agent and end this cycle for my family!”
Life first began throwing challenges at Sandra Rojas Fernandez of Bolivia when she was just a baby. When she was seven months old, her father passed away, leaving her young mother alone to care for Sandra and her three brothers. Times were hard and even the young children had to pitch in, washing clothes and cooking for other people.
When the children almost drowned washing clothes in the river, her mother sent them to live with relatives hoping they could have a better life. Unfortunately, for Sandra, that led to a childhood filled with neglect, physical abuse, and rape.
Sandra’s mother sent Sandra to live with her aunt and uncle in the city of Sucre, where she was told Sandra would get an education. But it wasn’t long after going to live there that Sandra figured out that her aunt and uncle’s promises for a better life were false. They beat her, often refused to feed her, and forced her to work at their store. When she could take it no more, Sandra ran away and was placed in a foster home. A few days later her mother, who she had not seen in almost seven years, came to pick her up.
Now remarried, Sandra’s mother took her home to live with her and her new husband. Sandra’s mother worked during the day, leaving Sandra home with her stepfather, who turned out to be an alcoholic. He tried raping Sandra several times while she was home alone with him.
“I didn’t want to tell my mother so she wouldn’t suffer,” Sandra recalls.
But Sandra’s nightmare continued, when her stepfather’s son one day came to the house visit and found Sandra alone. He raped her and when she told her mother what had happened, she was not believed.
“I left the house, carrying all that pain,” said Sandra.
By age 15, Sandra was pregnant. She eventually married the father and together they had three more children. Unfortunately, he drank a lot and was abusive to her and the children.
Finally, Sandra found the courage to end the relationship. She got a divorce and began focusing on her children to pull her through the heartache. But the bad times were far from over. Sandra’s oldest son suffered from depression and committed suicide. Her daughter got pregnant and then married at a very young age. And then, during all this emotional chaos, there was an explosion at the nearby mine, which caused her house to be destroyed. Sandra and her family lost everything and had to live in a tent for some time.
Though she has endured incredible hardship, Sandra is determined to keep going and to improve her life and her children’s lives, including a young grandson whom she supports.
At the age of 43, she is picking up the pieces and working to gain her high school diploma, with help from her Live Your Dream Awards. Her ultimate dream is to study at the university in Orujo City and to become a chef.
“Everything I went through pushes me forward so I can finish school,” said Sandra. “I want to overcome all obstacles so that my son and grandson can become good people.”
Esperanza* was born to a poor family in Mexico. As the oldest of six children, she helped raise her siblings and along with her family worked in the fields. The family struggled financially and when the situation worsened and her parents were no longer able to feed their children, they did the unthinkable. They sold 14-year-old Esperanza as a teenage bride to a man she did not know. She went on to have two children with this man, and despite the large age gap between them, managed to find happiness. But all that changed when her husband died unexpectedly. His half-brother quickly came to claim the land and forced Esperanza, her children and her mother-in-law to leave their home. With no income and nowhere to go, they stayed with some acquaintances who offered Esperanza work on the U.S. side of the border.
“They said I would be paid well and could give the money to my father and mother-in-law to pay for my children’s expenses. So I accepted,” recalls Esperanza. “That same day they took me across the border and my nightmare began.”
She had been trafficked into a life of prostitution. There were tents set up, where women were forced to serve the laborers working in the fields.
“I could not believe what I had fallen into and that this could happen in the United States,” she said. “I tried for a long time to resist, but that only earned me broken bones.”
After being there for a while, Esperanza realized that the women who cooperated got better food and more freedom. So she feigned cooperation and was one day taken into town to buy groceries. She took advantage of a distraction and hid on a nearby truck to get away.
“I didn’t know where I was going and I only had a few dollars for groceries,” she said. “I arrived in a place that was completely foreign to me. I didn’t speak English and the money ran out fast. Before long, I was just one more person living on the streets.”
But Esperanza’s luck changed when a supervisor at a store where she would search the garbage cans and dumpsters for food befriended her. Esperanza told the woman her story. The woman only spoke a small bit of Spanish, but she believed her and offered her a room in her home. Eventually, she helped Esperanza get back home to her family.
Frightened that her perpetrators would come back, Esperanza, her parents, her mother-in-law and her children all relocated, and she began building a new life. She enrolled in school and worked very hard to make ends meet. She was even able to buy a piece of land for the family.
It was not long after that she happened to see one of her previous captors with a young girl in town. That chance sighting put Esperanza on a mission—a mission to rescue trafficked girls trapped just as she had been.
Yet her mission came with a price, a tragic one. When the men discovered she had rescued 11 girls, they broke into her home. They beat her, and they raped her. And when she didn’t return the girls to them, they killed her son.
Despite her unfathomable grief and the many dangers she faces, Esperanza continues to fight sex trafficking. She is currently building a shelter for these girls. With some support from the government, she is responsible for living expenses for both the girls and their newborn children, since many were pregnant when she took them in.
Esperanza is using her Soroptimist Live Your Dream Awards to pursue a degree in computer science and has been accepted into law school so that she can defend victims of sex trafficking and bring to justice the men who profit at the women’s expense.
She says “My goals are many but I can summarize them all in one word: SERVING.”
(*Esperanza is not her real name, which was changed to protect her identity.)