It’s done. The Women’s Code Conference has wrapped up and the first round of Founding Ambassadors has taken the pledge. Amid everything that happened this past weekend one thing stood out: an unexpected showstopper stole our hearts.
It was Melissa (not her real name), all of 15 years old, who only came to the event because she was in a fight with her mom and needed to get out of the house as long as possible to cool off.
I’d invited her to attend The Women’s Code Conference because I thought it might help her with what she’s going through. Melissa and I had met through my daughter several years back ,and I often check in on her. I toyed with the idea of demonstrating a real-life example of how bullying, hurtful words and a lack of support can affect teenagers and set them on a lifelong path of depression and low-self esteem.
Melissa had told me she wasn’t coming, but there she was, as I’d hoped, just in time for the session on support. Melissa accepted my invitation to join me onstage. What came next can only be described as a shortcut to the center of your heart.
Melissa told us about her life and her mother’s second bout with cancer. “When she’s gone, I don’t really know what will happen to me,” she said, one of several statements that tore at us. We learned that her mother is now too ill to care for her siblings, that her family has been torn apart, that Melissa’s two siblings now live with her father and his new wife, that she rarely gets to see them, that she misses them terribly.
Melissa lives without any security. At the tender age of 15, she bears the huge responsibility of caring for her mother. Melissa told us that she really doesn’t know too much about the details of her mother’s illness and what that means. That her mother, a woman with a masters degree, a former professor at a prestigious private College who wrote speeches for presidents, was now bedridden, down to 80 pounds and had little hope, and nothing to look forward two. And still, mother and daughter fight.
Melissa was very matter-of-fact about it all. She spoke about herself without much emotion and simply stated that she wasn’t good at much of anything. She’s failing in school in each subject and her expectations of her future are limited.
When I looked up the entire audience was in tears. The reality of a young woman’s despair and pain brought the audience together in an instant. We stood as one and came together as women and mothers to protect our youngest, this diminutive punk rocker with orange hair and a tongue piercing who sat on stage breathing hard, hoping she wasn’t being judged.
The women in the audience stepped up as one. They shouted out the Ambassador’s mantra to support Melissa: I see you, I believe in you, I support you.
Melissa sat there completely stunned, and admitted to feeling awkward. She didn’t know that anyone out there cared about her. More women spoke up and, in tears, shared their own heartbreaking stories of how they overcame their own difficulties as teenagers. The support kept coming and coming. And just like that a roomful of women who didn’t know each other became a tribe.
And Melissa? I asked her later in the day how all of this felt. “I have never felt anything like this in my entire life,” she said. “I didn’t want it to stop.”
She was the first one to arrive the next day.
We have all helped someone, sometimes without even knowing it. Let me know how your support had an impact on someone’s life. I’d love to hear from you.