Carissa's Story: Valley Woman's Life Inspires Documentary
The prestige of graduation at UCLA's law school is a far cry from Fresno's motel drive, a dark place infamous for drugs, crime, and prostitution.
Carissa Phelps never knew when she left her Coalinga home at the age of 11 that she would end up at both.
Carissa Phelps says, "A friend's uncle took me to Motel Drive for the first time and told me that he would take care of me and I would take care of him. And I was supposed to know what that meant, and I did by that time. I knew that meant I was supposed to have sex with him."
Carissa says she ran away from home to escape her abusive step-father and a mother who abandoned her. It only took a month before Carissa went from panhandler to prostitute. She says prostitution was not a choice, but a business of survival, and she, as the product, being beat, raped, and sold.
Carissa says, "I was a lost kid. If he told me to leave, I wouldn't know where to go. I had called my mom, she didn't pick me up...I didn't want to live, I mean I just didn't want to live."
The person she credits for saving her life was waiting at juvenile hall. Ron Jenkins says Fresno State Football was his ticket out of a rough life in South Central Los Angeles in the mid-1980s. The stand-out wide receiver eventually became a counselor at Fresno County's juvenile hall where he met Carissa. He noticed how smart she was and told her education would be the key to changing her life.
Carissa says, "Ron telling me I had potential, and I didn't event know what that word meant when he told me, but just saying that to me was huge."
What Ron didn't know was the impact those words would have. Carissa went on to not just graduate high school, but Summa Cum Laude from Fresno State. Then the Bulldog became a Bruin, coming here to UCLA to get a Masters in both law & business.
Last week, when the 30 year old UCLA student graduated from law school, the man she calls her father was there.
Ron Jenkins says, "I had a big smile on my face the whole time. It's unbelievable to think back to where she was and she where she is today, and at the same time, my gut feelings, just told you that this was supposed to be for her."
Her life story is now the topic of a documentary, which has help from Academy Award winning Director Davis Guggenheim who worked on the hit documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth". The UCLA student directing the film calls it the ultimate story of unconditional love and paying it forward.
David Sauvage, documentary director, says, "She had a mentor, which I think is really interesting. So someone did exactly what he did for carissa, for him...People focus on a cycle of violence. But in Ron's case, you really have a cycle of mentorship."
Carissa says Ron is the one who cared when no one else did. Jenkins says, "Someone helped me and I basically returned the favor. Isn't that how it's supposed to be? That's what life is about. Helping each other move from one place to another, no matter what it is."
Carissa's ambition for change isn't stopping here on campus. Next month, she'll testify before Congress about a safe harbor law to protect children involved in prostitution. She says her graduation wish is that more adults will reach out to forgotten children involved in the foster care system, juvenile hall, and on the streets.
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