Sunday, October 25, 2020

I’m With Her, Because She’s Always Been With Me

Graciously re-posted by Joslyn Smith.

photo credit: Barbara Kinney / Hillary For America

photo credit: Barbara Kinney / Hillary For America

My family lived three miles down a dirt road in rural Arkansas. In 1990 my fifth grade class trip to the State Capitol in Little Rock introduced me to the work of the First Lady of Arkansas. She inspired me to think about how to make a difference in the lives of others. Two years later I wrote her a letter to tell her I wanted to become an attorney like her when I grew up and planned to name my daughter Hillary.

I received a form letter in return explaining why my parents should vote for Bill Clinton in the upcoming presidential election but in the right margin there was a handwritten note in bright blue marker addressed to me. In return, I sent her a tiny guardian angel lapel pin to help keep watch over her. We’ve exchanged letters ever since.

Following my parents’ earth-shattering divorce when I was fourteen, she reminded me of my resiliency in the face of adversity. Hillary Clinton told me I would likely unknowingly inspire and help someone else in the future, like she had done for me.

In the following years, I experienced the trauma and pain of sexual assault. I did not disclose that to Hillary, or anyone else for many years, but the care in her words written in brief handwritten notes helped me know she saw and heard me as worthy despite the abuse. When she announced in September 2015 she plans to develop a comprehensive plan to address sexual assault on college campuses, she said, “I want to send a message to every survivor of sexual assault. Don’t let anyone silence your voice. You have the right to be heard and you have a right to be believed.” Hearing her speak those words and take action healed my own trauma in new ways.

I attended the Arkansas School for Mathematics and Sciences (ASMS), a public residential boarding school for academically advanced junior and senior high school students. Hillary recommended to then Governor Bill Clinton such a school to help Arkansas meet the national education goal of producing high performing students in the mathematics and sciences by the year 2000.

While at ASMS, I helped women and children as a volunteer with the local women’s shelter. I lived at the safe house and served as shelter director the year following high school. Advocating for women and children impacted by domestic violence and sexual assault solidified my resolve to find work that helped others. I tried to find additional housing that could enable the shelter to expand its services. To this end, I wrote to Hillary to see if she knew of any resources that might be helpful. Someone at the Department of Housing and Urban Development phoned me to offer information and support.

Because of Hillary, I began to research women’s colleges and decided to attend Scripps College in Claremont, California. When I wrote to let her know of my choice, Hillary wrote to me that the president of Scripps, Nancy Bekavac, was a dear friend of hers and I should introduce myself. I did during the matriculation ceremony on one of my first days there, and worked for the president’s office for several years during my years at Scripps.

My classmate and friend Andrea died from bulimia in June 1999. I had developed a severe eating disorder of my own about which I had been in denial for some time. After Andrea’s death, I reached out to her parents Tom and Doris Smeltzer. They asked if I had an interest in attending a congressional briefing on eating disorders in April 2001, where they would tell Andrea’s story. I said yes and contacted Hillary’s Senate office to request a meeting to say hello. Hillary met with me that day and said she’d been paying attention to me for quite some time and offered me an internship in her Senate office. I mentioned the upcoming briefing and shared Andrea’s story. She did more than show up at the congressional briefing. She said she would champion the cause of eating disorders on Capitol Hill. In 2003, she became the first senator to add eating disorders language to legislation introduced in the Senate, setting an important precedent for subsequent legislation.

Instead of starting my internship in the summer of 2001, I entered treatment for my own eating disorder. Hillary made sure I knew the internship would be waiting for me when I was able to make it to D.C.

In February 2002, I introduced Hillary when she was given a policy award for her commitment to those with eating disorders. That night was the first time I ever spoke publicly about surviving a suicide attempt and entering eating disorder treatment. When I stepped up to take the mic, Hillary stepped from the sidelines and stood shoulder to shoulder with me. At one point, my emotions overwhelmed me. Hillary rubbed my back and helped me continue my speech. When I finished, she embraced me tightly. “I am so proud of you. I am so, so proud of you,” she said.

Motivated to recover, I intended to be healthy enough to finish an internship with Hillary. I began my time with her office in January 2005. In a morning meeting with interns, I asked Hillary about the status of legislative efforts concerning eating disorders. That afternoon, a member of Hillary’s staff and I attended a policy meeting about the reintroduction of the 2003 bill. From that day forward, I worked directly on eating disorder and other mental health legislation. Later, at the American Psychological Association, I worked on mental health issues and established a legislative portfolio on eating disorders.

In 2009, I left D.C. and moved to Ithaca, New York, where I became a certified foster parent. Hillary’s lifelong work on behalf of children had greatly influenced me, and her specific work in support of children in foster care encouraged me. My move toward motherhood coincided with Hillary’s retirement from her role as Secretary of State. As I worked to prepare a nursery in my home, I took time to crochet an over-sized, soft, golden blanket to send to Hillary.

The day I completed my foster care certification, Hillary sent me a letter assuring me I would be a “wonderful mommy” one day. In January 2014, my daughter was placed in my arms at two weeks old, and we began our foster-to-adopt journey. That Mother’s Day, I wrote to Hillary that her support and lessons through the years helped me to become the best mother I could be for Ren.

As our adoption date approached, I asked friends and family members to decorate quilt squares. Hillary’s piece is placed near the center of Ren’s quilt. Ren’s adoption took place the same week as a campaign event in Syracuse, New York. As we waited for Hillary to speak, an aide told me she had requested a private moment to meet Ren. When Hillary walked toward us, she waved. “You must be Ren!” Ren played with her necklace while we spoke. She smiled and whispered, “Hiwawee.” “That’s right. That’s me, Hiwawee!” Now when an ad comes on TV, she yells, “My Hiwawee!” When out on walks with her daycare class, she runs to hug campaign yard signs on their route.

When I was growing up, Hillary was First Lady of Arkansas. As I was coming of age, she was First Lady, then Senator, then Secretary of State. Now that I am a mother of a strong, bright and curious little girl, I plan to vote for Hillary as president.

I am with Hillary, because she’s always been with me, and she’s going to be there for my daughter.

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