Of all the students graduating in 2007, perhaps none have overcome greater odds to achieve than CAYS foundation students living at the Frances Bodden Girl’s Home and the Bonaventure Boy’s Home.
And perhaps none have achieved so much as Mellissa Dilbert, 17. With the assistance of the CAYS foundation, she rebelled against low expectations others had for her and is now setting out in the real world, armed with an education, a host of academic awards and big hopes for the future.
‘It’s up to you if you make the most of your opportunities or you waste them,’ says Mellissa, on a break at the Department of Public Works, where she now works full-time.
It’s an admirable ethos, but after spending much of her formative years being shuffled from one relative’s house to another, before spending most of her teenage years at the Frances Bodden Girl’s Home, some would have forgiven her for setting her sights lower.
Mellissa first had to get used to looking out for herself when her mother was deported to Honduras at the age of eight.
‘I was kind of flung around basically. I was taken away from my grandmother and I went to stay with another grandmother. I went to stay with my great-aunt, then with my great-grandmother, then with a foster mother. After her I went to stay with my foster mother’s sister, but she went to Cayman Brac so I went to the girl’s home.’
Mellissa was 11 and the youngest girl at the home. It was initially an intimidating environment, she explains.
‘At the time, I didn’t really know what to expect. I’d never heard of this children’s home thing.
‘I’m not going to say I was perfect. I made my mistakes when I first went up there. The house was split in two. It was always the good side and the bad side. Being the newcomer, it’s always easier to make friends with the bad side. It’s always easier that way and I kind of went that way.’
This spilled over into school, where she concedes she also got caught up with the wrong crowd.
It took a while, but Mellissa eventually started to see she would amount to little if she didn’t change her ways.
‘I sat down and I thought: my friends that are doing what they do, they can afford to do that. If they want to live with their parents until they are 30 years old, that’s OK with their parents.
‘Me, on the other hand, what would happen to me when I come out of high school? I can’t stay in the home for the rest of my life, or until I feel I’m ready to come out. So I said, ‘I’m not wasting any more time out of my life’.’
Mellissa cut some of her friends, worked harder at school and did summer jobs to raise spending money.
She soon found she was capable of more than what others had thought possible for her.
Mellissa graduated from John Gray High School in June, picking up the Governor’s Achievement Award for Excellence. Over the four final-year school terms, she twice received John Gray’s best report card. Mellissa was also the CAYS Foundation’s most outstanding academic achiever.
No small feat – but Mellissa thinks there is always room for improvement.
‘I felt really proud. It showed me that dropping some of my friends, working hard and refusing to take crap from people paid off. But, you know, I wish I had of done better. I know I could have done better.’
Seemingly always looking to go one better, Mellissa finishes work at 5.30pm and heads straight to the University College of the Cayman Islands, where, by night, she is doing an Associate’s Degree in Business Administration.
In time, she hopes to open a chain of businesses including a hairdressing salon, an interior design shop, a photography store and a bar and restaurant.
While Mellissa has her eyes fixed firmly on the future, staff at the Frances Bodden Girl’s Home say they are already missing Mellissa, who developed into an invaluable mentor for other girls at the home.
‘Sometimes other girls have looked like they are going the wrong way and Melissa will talk to them and say ‘you know, I’ve been there and I realised that it doesn’t pay; it doesn’t pay to be wasting your time because in the end it will come back to you’,’ said Grace Bryant, assistant manager of the Frances Bodden Girl’s Home.
Mellissa hopes her story will help to overcome the negative perceptions that some still have of children that grow up in residential care.
‘There are a lot of us that come up in the girl’s home just because our family has some sort of financial problem, or because they can’t take care of us or because they have been abused but we are not there because we are bad children.
‘The girl’s home is not a bad place to be … there are so many opportunities handed out to you. There are counsellors, there are people that come to talk about different topics; if you want to play piano they will get you lessons.
‘If there is anything you want, you just ask and they will find a way for you to do it. They are very supportive.
‘But, at the end of the day, you’ve got to get up and grab the opportunities – it’s up to you.’
Funded by the Ministry of Health and Human Services, the CAYS Foundation works with and provides residential care to at-risk youth aged 10 to 19.