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Perseverance, courage and a little help from her friends

Christina Meredith sitting on the beach

Christina Meredith once hurdled a table during a scavenger hunt. Wearing a ball gown. Her mission? To find one square of toilet paper. Gunnery Sgt. Duane Hanson laughed as he recalled Meredith’s determination at the Navy Ball when she was a member of the Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps at Nease High School.

“My wife and I were stunned that she cleared the table,” laughed Hanson, a naval science instructor at Nease. However, he wasn’t stunned by her determination. Nor are others who know Meredith, a political science major at the University of North Florida.

In her memoir “CinderGirl: My Journey Out of the Ashes to a Life of Hope,” Meredith details being physically and sexually abused as a child, attempting suicide at age 13, spending time in foster care and being homeless for a year after graduating from high school. But she never gave up, even when many people would have.

Along the way, Meredith said she was aided by guardian angels who helped her find discipline and a purpose at Nease’s ROTC program, win the Ms. California pageant, succeed at UNF and publish a book.

She’s on track to both graduate from UNF and be commissioned in December. Now 32, Meredith’s new mission is to help reform the foster care system. It’s her chance to help children who have had similar struggles in a system in which she is all too familiar.

Leaning on her ROTC Instructors
Meredith heaps praise on the instructors at Nease’s celebrated ROTC program, insisting they saved her life. To her, they were more than mentors who showed her how to be a good soldier.

“They were the fathers that I needed,” she said.

Hanson said the staff wants students to feel secure enough to talk with them. “This is like their second family,” he said. The instructors knew Meredith’s home life was difficult but were impressed by her determination. And they encouraged her to stay strong.

“I kept telling her, ‘You can do this … Keep plugging forward,’” said Hanson, a retired Marine who began working at Nease in 2004. He said Meredith is extremely motivated and competitive, but also has a joyous spirit and strong faith.

Foster care and a new focus for change
Meredith said she ended up in a foster home when she was a 16-year-old high school junior. But in reality, she had been part of the system since she was 9, when she said the cycle of social workers and police being called to her family’s home began.

Meredith said her foster parents were a nice couple with three children, the youngest of whom was Meredith’s age. She aged out of the system when she was 18 but her foster parents — whom Meredith loved — wanted her to stay. However, Meredith knew she was making life difficult for them. Bringing a traumatized child into the home of a stable family was disruptive. Meredith was stealing food and hiding it in her room. She couldn’t sleep without a light on. And she was having night terrors.

“I was a good kid but I had been through so much abuse, I couldn’t function in the way that everyone else could,” said Meredith, noting she never received trauma therapy while in the system.

For the rest of her senior year, she stayed on friends’ couches and worked a couple of jobs to make it. After graduation, she lived in her bright yellow 2002 Chevrolet Cavalier while continuing to work multiple jobs.

Ultimately, she decided to move with her younger sister to California, where she again met two people who helped change her life.

A pageant win to help her mission
A few months after moving to the West Coast, she was approached by a man at Whole Foods who said he was recruiting for the Ms. California pageant. “I thought he was hitting on me,” Meredith said, but took his card anyway.

When she got home that night, Meredith realized being in the pageant could provide a spotlight for her foster care mission. She had already started doing speaking engagements about the need for change in the system and her plans to begin a nonprofit, the Christina Meredith Foundation.

“I was like, ‘Oh, gosh. This could be huge for me,’” she said.

After winning the 2013 Ms. California pageant, Meredith started piecing together the stories about her life that she had written when she was homeless for her book. Next up was finding a publisher. And again, someone stepped into her life to make that happen.

Timing and friendship lead Meredith to a publisher
For new authors, finding a publisher is rarely easy. Unless, of course, you get help from a New York Times best-selling author.

When author Henry Cloud was contacted by a friend asking if he knew anyone who would open their home to Meredith until she got on her feet, the timing was perfect. In his foreword for Meredith’s book, Cloud recalled that his wife had begun working with organizations to help children who age-out of the foster care system. And then came the call about Meredith.

Cloud said he was inspired both by Meredith’s ability to rise above her childhood and by her passion to help reform foster care. He said he realized why the two had met when she told him that, even though her book had been rejected by several publishers, she was sure God would open a door. Cloud put her in touch with his agent, who took her on as a client and sold her book to Harper Collins. It was released in March.

Since then, Meredith’s schedule has been filled with speaking engagements, book signings and national television appearances. Those events are part of an already busy schedule as a college student and a member of the U.S. Army. Again, she found grace, this time from UNF professors who admired her tenacity.

Support from her UNF professors
Meredith said UNF is ideal for many reasons, including its size. It’s small enough to be a community, she said. And it’s a place where professors know the names of the students and don’t treat them like a number.

“I need the support of my professors to be successful, and UNF has given me that,” she said. “They’ve partnered with me on my journey to serve in the United States Army and to serve my community.” Meredith said they were particularly supportive when she was called to active duty for more than two weeks for Operation Irma.

Also, when Meredith was having trouble in her earth science class, she went to her professor, Dr. Barry Albright, for help. Having heard many excuses from students over the years, he admits he was initially skeptical when Meredith began sharing her story thinking it seemed too much for one person to go through. But he quickly realized she was telling the truth and was impressed she had the strength to get through it.

“She had been dealt a crummy hand of cards but was not going to let that hold her back,” Albright said.

He spent time coaching her on study techniques, particularly becoming extremely familiar with her notes. It worked. Meredith pulled up her grade.

The fact that she never gave up is incredibly admirable, Albright said. “This is the story you see with successful people.”

Confident in the mission ahead
Meredith knows that her goal to improve the foster care system may sound overwhelming, but she’s been facing long odds all her life.

She’s hoping to partner her foundation with other nonprofits and groups that can help improve a system she believes is overcrowded and underfunded. She realizes it’s not an overnight fix. Two small steps that could make a significant difference, Meredith said, would be ensuring that foster children get the trauma therapy they need and requiring them to participate in at least one extracurricular activity at school.

The therapy would help provide healing and the activities bring a purpose and camaraderie to their lives.

As Meredith talks about her plans, she has a surprising confidence for someone who has experienced what she has. But that confidence, she said, is necessary to gain the confidence of others as Meredith pushes for changes in foster care — changes she hopes can make a difference in countless children’s lives.