Living with a painful chronic condition or struggling as a foster child turned teen mom — youth here and everywhere deal with hardships, but few do so while maintaining a strong academic record and emerging into leaders among their peers.
Anger controlled Sherry Bass for too much of her life.
The 18-year-old graduates from Dallas Can Academy in Oak Cliff next month, and that overwhelming emotion enveloped her from a young age.
She’s endured abuse, neglect and teen pregnancy, but now she’s on her way to becoming a registered nurse.
Bass’ mother had labeled her “hyper” and so she began giving her daughter marijuana to smoke at age 8. The woman used drugs and often had men in the house.
Desperate for stability, Bass sought out her birth father, a man she’d never met.
“I found him on Facebook, and he said I could come live with him,” she says.
So at 13, she took the bus from Massachusetts to Desoto, Texas.
Things didn’t improve. Her dad was using drugs and alcohol, and he allowed Bass to do the same. He didn’t really want her there. One night, in a cloud of inebriation, he told her he didn’t love her.
By 14, she became a ward of the state in foster care, and life took a hard left turn. Her foster mother showed her love and took her to church. She received mental-health therapy, and a counselor spoke to her in a way that resonated: Giving into anger means giving up on yourself, on your own life. If you don’t care about yourself, no one else will.
“I realized I have to be there for myself,” she says. “And I realized God is there for me.”
At Lancaster High School, Bass began to study hard and made good grades. She won the physics award at the end of her 10th-grade year, but by the time she walked across stage to accept it, she was visibly pregnant.
“This girl heckled me. She said I wasn’t going to amount to anything because I was just going to be a welfare mother,” Bass says.
When she first found out she was pregnant, Bass says, “I thought, I’ll just have an abortion, and no one will have to know.”
But that Sunday, her preacher gave a sermon about the prophet Jeremiah, wherein God informs the prophet of his own miraculous powers, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
Bass took that as a sign, and a few months before she turned 18, her son, Jeremiah, was born. Foster parents in Texas are prohibited from housing mothers and their children. But Bass was able to secure a spot at Oak Cliff’s Promise House, which, among other services, offers supportive housing to young women and their children for up to two years. She enrolled in Dallas Can Academy, a couple of blocks away from Promise House.
“It’s more than just a school,” she says. “They take the time to figure out what’s wrong and help you calm down so you can focus on your work.”
Through the school’s accelerated courses, Bass finished quickly. By March of this year, she had completed all the coursework necessary for graduation.
“She’s a very determined young lady, and we’re very proud of her,” says assistant principal Rufus Johnson.
Children raised in foster care are far less likely to graduate from high school than others. According to a 2011 national study from the University of Chicago, foster kids are more likely to be suspended or expelled, repeat a grade or drop out. They also score lower on average on standardized tests.
Bass is an exception. Unlike many, who get frustrated by the extensive paperwork, she figured out how to navigate the bureaucratic red tape to claim benefits for which all foster children are eligible, including free college tuition at state schools.
She is planning to attend Texas Woman’s University to earn a bachelor of science in nursing. She’s already found housing and applied for federally funded childcare in Denton. She’s aware of the state-funded program that will help former foster children pay up to $3,000 in household bills.
Bass says some people have tried to push her toward a lesser nursing degree that would take only about a year to complete, but that’s not good enough for her.
“If you’re going to do it, you might as well go all the way,” she says.
She is in a hurry to get it done. She plans to begin classes in July. Her eyes already are set on college graduation.
“I know I have to go right away because otherwise I will just get a job, and I’ll never go,” she says.
A shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe, encased in brick and glass, stands before the steps to the Hernandez home near Kiest Park.
An enormous portrait of another queen dominates one wall of their living room. It’s the quinceañera portrait of their only daughter, 18-year-old Aylin. She’s wearing a mint-green gown with long sleeves, a tiara atop her long, curled hair. She looks happy and pretty, but those feelings, for her, can be elusive.
There are things Aylin Hernandez can’t do.
Joining the basketball team, driving and traveling alone, for example, are out of the question.
Hernandez was born with the fragile skin disorder epidermolysis bullosa. Her body does not produce the protein needed to hold the layers of skin together so the slightest friction results in blisters and sores.
Even though she has her limits, Aylin is a successful student at Bishop Dunne Catholic School, expected to graduate this month. She’s a typical teenager, always on her phone. She loves watching “Pretty Little Liars” on Netflix. And she’s a huge fan of the rapper Drake. She wants to go to Disneyland and to visit Drake’s hometown, Toronto.
On the other hand, her daily routine isn’t typical.
Every night, her mom has to help her shower. And every morning, she has to treat the sores covering Aylin’s back. Every morning, Aylin cries from the pain.
Besides that, her body is constantly in a state of healing, so she’s easily exhausted.
She wants to become a psychologist so she can work with children in the hospital, just like the people who helped her. The torment of daily physical pain, plus the emotional pain associated with looking different, has taken its toll on her psyche.
“People were always looking and pointing at her,” says Aylin’s mother, Mayra, in Spanish. “This would get me so mad, and I would talk back to them. We live in a world where society judges without knowing. Aylin used to hide behind me when this would happen, and I would tell her there was no reason to do so.”
Aylin is quiet, serious and not very friendly, Mayra says. She gets mad easily.
“Maybe that’s because of the attitude,” the world shows her, Mayra says.
But she’s also very creative, and she loves doing crafts.
Aylin’s condition caused her fingers to fuse to her hands. She had a couple of surgeries as a child to correct it, but the fingers fused back again, and now only her thumbs are free. But she’s found ways to write and use a keyboard.
“She finds ways to adapt. I don’t really see her making excuses,” says Bishop Dunne director of guidance Mario Root. “I can’t imagine her having gone anywhere else. We’re really proud of her, and we’re proud to have her among our graduates.”
It was a long road. Between kindergarten and sixth grade at St. Cecilia Catholic School, Aylin’s mom went to school with her every day, all day.
The teasing from other students was more than Aylin could bear alone.
“It got to the point where she didn’t want to go to school,” Mayra says. “She felt tired and like she couldn’t take it anymore. I told her she had to go to school and that I was going with her.”
Things changed in seventh and eighth grade. Kids weren’t as mean, and Aylin wanted some independence.
By ninth grade, when she entered Bishop Dunne, Aylin’s mom came to school only to bring her daughter lunch.
Now that she’s a senior, Aylin says, she’s comfortable. She talks more and participates in school activities.
Aylin’s mom says people would be surprised to know that Aylin actually could be a good basketball player. Mayra and Aylin’s dad, Juan, have played since they were kids. Despite her physical limitations, Aylin has figured out ways to shoot the ball, and she almost never misses, Mayra says.
Aylin also has a 7-month-old brother, Leonardo. When she first found out her mom was pregnant, she was mad because she was afraid the baby could have her inherited skin condition.
But once she found out it was a boy, her attitude changed.
“I told her, ‘It’s going to be a boy, but you are the queen,’ and she would just laugh.”
Ericka Rodriguez contributed to this report