Most stories that begin with childhood abuse and poverty do not have a happy ending.
But for Melissa Apodaca, a passion for sports and the help of a few friends led her out of her troubled past into success in wrestling and an eventual home at the U.S. Olympic Training Center (OTC) in
“Growing up was really hard,” Apodaca said. “We moved to
Despite her young age, Apodaca set one goal for herself: to avoid following in the footsteps of her sisters and finish ninth grade without getting pregnant. She committed to her goal, too - even when her mother told her to quit school and get a job, Apodaca was adamant about continuing her education.
“She really didn’t want me to do that,” Apodaca explained. “So, she was like, alright you can stay with one of my friends. I was like, alright at least I can go to school. That’s all I want to do and I don’t care what I have to go through, I just want to go to school. So, I don’t know how she got it, but … she gave her friend a TV to take care of me and, I mean, it was a lot better because I had a permanent roof over my head but … I just spent the night there and kept my clothes in a trash bag.”
Apodaca’s living situation understandably left her with many emotions; anger, yet appreciation, sadness, yet excitement. She explains she was able to stay sane because she put all of her energy and emotions into sports.
During her high school years, she was the first and only girl on her football team. She participated in bodybuilding and cross country, created a physical fitness team and, of course, wrestled. She would sometimes spend late nights at school, training until eleven at night to avoid going home.
“She was very driven in the fact she strived to get better every day,” her high school wrestling coach Tom Huffer, Jr., said, “In the off season it was not uncommon for her to jog home from school which was approximately 8 miles one way. She was always lifting weights and training in some form. We always tried to get her to take a day off and rest. I always worried about her over training.”
Her teammates and their families eventually started to see Apodaca’s devotion to training, as well, and regularly checked in with her to make sure she was okay.
“A whole bunch of people always, like, like my teammate’s moms would be like ‘Are you okay?’ and I’d be like, ‘Yeah, I’m totally fine,’” Apodaca said, “I didn’t want anybody to know, … [but] I think they kind of knew. Some of my teammate’s moms and teachers kind of new a little bit, but not really.”
All of that changed, though, when she met a boy named Marcus. Described by Apodaca as “a really good guy,” he introduced Apodaca to his family. Before long, she was spending days at a time at Marcus’s family’s house. Their only requirement for their hospitality was that Apodaca attend church with them.
When the family asked Apodaca to move in with them permanently, though, she balked at the prospect and turned them down.
“I was kind of like, no I can’t do that because in the back of my mind I was so scared of having … a family,” Apodaca explained, “I’d never had a family, I wouldn’t know how to react in a family - I’ve always been by myself.”
Still, with more people becoming aware of her situation, it wasn’t long before her school found out. Once they did, Apodaca was told if she was not taken in that night, she was going to be placed into the foster care system.
Apodaca’s high school football coach Duncan Shackelford stepped in to provide her with a home, but she knew it was only a temporary arrangement.
“My wife and I talked it over and wanted to offer her a place that she could stay and get back on her feet and not worry about where she was going to live,” Shackelford said, “We didn't have a very big house and my son had to give up his room to make it happen, but she was a joy to have be a part of our family.”
It was her cross country coach Rachel Smith, though, who gradually opened her house to Apodaca as a permanent home.
“My cross country coach for like the longest time would be dropping me off from practice and would always be like, ‘If you ever need anything, let me know,’” Apodaca said, “And just over time, one day I came there and there was a bed in the garage and I was like, ‘Oh, okay.’ And so, anyways, just over time, they took me in as their own kid and it changed my life like 100% around.”
Even with a place to stay, Apodaca still felt like something was missing in her life. She had not seen her father since she was five, and she wanted to see him again. Despite never having had experiences with religion aside from her time with Marcus’s family, she turned to God with her request.
“One day, I was like, alright, God if you’re really there, if you really do exist, I just want to meet my dad, that’s it,” she said.
Apodaca did not expect anything to come from her plea - after all, she was in Alaska and her father and his family had no idea where to find her if they were even looking. But later that night, the phone in her house rang.
“That night, they got a call at their house and it was my aunt who I didn’t even know who she was,” Apodaca explained, “And she said, ‘Hey, you had an uncle that died. Do you want to come out here and meet everybody?’ And so they flew me out the very next day to meet my dad.”
Once all of the pieces of her life had begun to come together, Apodaca was once again able to pour her energy into school and sports. Without worries about where to sleep at night or where her next meal was coming from, Apodaca was able to work until her grades were up to straight As. For the first time in her life, she was convinced that school could fit with someone from her background.
Still, she excelled at sports - enough that she was able to come to the Olympic Training Center in
“Wrestling was like a way to get all my anger and frustration out,” she explained, “It was more challenging than anything else and I kind of related it to my life because I was thinking you know, if I can go through all this, then I’m tougher than anyone out there no matter what boy is out there.”
Her coaches, too, saw the way Apodaca was able to take her life experiences and turn them into positive results not only in her sport but in her life.
“I think Melissa's background had a major impact on her life,” Huffer said, “She became a better person for it and was driven to become a better wrestler. As you know, many people with a background such as Melissa’s channel the energy negatively but she went the opposite way. She bettered herself and has become the young woman she is now. She is trying to make a difference, not only in her life but others as well.”
Having recognized how fortunate she was to have escaped from a life of poverty and abuse, Apodaca decided that she wanted to help others in similar situations get out. As a result of her efforts, the Change Ribbon was born.
“There’s abuse ribbons, there’s poverty ribbons, but they’re all different ribbons,” Apodaca said, noting that kids with similar backgrounds to hers tend to experience three things: abuse, poverty and rape.
“I really wanted to hit on childhood abuse, rape or poverty because I went through that, and so I combined all three of those ribbons to make one ribbon and I want to call it ‘Change’ because I was able to change my destiny. If we make [people] more aware, other kids can change their destiny.”
Although the project is just in its beginning stages, Apodaca has high hopes. She aspires not only to raise awareness with the general public, but also to let abused children know that there are other options out there for them.
“I really want [the Change Ribbon] to be recognized because I think the biggest problem is because kids do not know what’s wrong,” Apodaca said, “Their parents will abuse them or … will spend all their money on drugs and the kids won’t be able to eat that night and kids are always like, ‘Oh, it’s my fault’ or ‘It’ll get better,’ but that’s like Stockholm Syndrome. … If kids are more aware that this is a problem and if they recognize it, then hopefully more kids will be able to report it and hopefully I’ll be able to change something.”
Her desire to change the lives of abused children goes beyond raising awareness through the Change Ribbon project. While her current goal is to make it to the 2012 Olympic Games, once her wrestling career is over, she has a different goal in mind.
“I think my number one goal is after I’m done wrestling is I want to open a home for kids,” she said, “And not an orphanage, not foster care, but a home for kids where they stay until they grow up and are able to take care of themselves.”
Despite the ease with which she now talks about her past, Apodaca admits that it was not always so easy to talk about her history. Today, though, she is hopeful that by telling her own story, she can inspire children to seek the help they need to get out of abusive situations.
“Before…now, it was really hard to talk about my background,” Apodaca explained, “but now I think it’s really good for people to hear about it … because a lot of kids don’t ever want to talk about it because they’re scared and they don’t know any other world or any other place. It’s definitely good to be a voice for them.”