It was 1987 when I first met Serena. She was in NFTE's first program that year, in the South Bronx, when made it into the top ten business plan finalists of New York City. However, Serena's path has been full of struggle, and I want to share her story to help other young adults see the impact of not graduating from school, financial struggle, and drug abuse on even the brightest young entrepreneurs.
The author and Serena
Steve: Serena, please tell me about your background.
Serena: I'm the oldest of four children; my father was deceased when I was going on four years old. I had a horrible life as a child. It was the time of the crack epidemic and after my first use of the drug I wanted to feel like that again and, I turned to the life of drugs, selling drugs, abusing drugs, in and out of jail and then prison. I also had a child at seventeen years old, out of wedlock. But I knew I couldn't carry my son, so I gave him to my mother to raise him. He turned out to be a good kid. He graduated high school, something I didn't do, something I wish I did.
SM: Describe to us why you dropped out of school and how you became homeless.
I dropped out of school because I got pregnant and that wasn't the reason but my first girlfriend got murdered. I am gay and proud to be so. Once I found out she got murdered I didn't want to go to school no more. I didn't want to do anything no more. I didn't even want to raise my own child.
I was depressed and wanted to die myself. She was the reason I did have a baby, because she could not have babies so I wanted to help her fulfill her goal to raise a family. And that was the wrong reason to have a baby. And I lost my childhood because I had a child at a young age. And as far as me being homeless, I just gave up and did not have the energy to keep relationships that were needed to have a home. I went from dropping out of school, using drugs, selling drugs, to being homeless, but I still survived. I still took care of myself by eating food thrown away and sleeping under bridges. Then I went to prison as I got caught robbing stores. I had to survive in the streets so I robbed and stole to get high because I wasn't sleeping with nobody, turning to prostitution, so I robbed people's stores. But I never got caught; I turned myself in. And that doesn't make it right but it taught me a lesson. All I can say is: once you are out of school with no degree it ain't easy. Stay a child as long as you can. Don't use drugs. Finish high school. Get a diploma. If you don't get nothing in life, get a diploma and stay healthy and spiritual.
SM: What is it like to be homeless?
Terrible. You have to steal to eat. You got to sleep here and there. Because it's not easy to live in shelters. But being that I'm sick with the HIV virus, they put me somewhere where I was safe. Because you can't be HIV positive and be homeless because they don't allow you to be homeless. [the homeless shelter organization] is something like welfare for people that's HIV positive. But we get more benefits than a regular person would. We get housing faster than a regular person would. Like, for instance, anybody who lives on the street, that's not sick, it's hard for them to get housing. But for us, they have to house us, because we're sick. That's the law.
SM: How did you get the virus and how did they know you were sick?
I got the virus from a blood transfusion back in 1988 when I had an issue while I was giving birth. I found out about four years later that I was positive from a test I had in the hospital, when I was sick and they take blood work. I am suffering now.
SM: Did you ever have a business?
Yes. I sold hats, I sold gloves, I sold everything. I sold watches, lighters, everything. Scarves. I learned from NFTE in school to buy low and sell high. You took us to the wholesale market on Broadway and then showed us how to sell at flea markets. I had my own bank account. I wrote my business plan. But I threw all that out the window, due to drugs and that I was so depressed after my girlfriend got murdered.
I wish I could turn back the hands of time and go back to high school. Have a better life.
SM: When you were homeless, where did you sleep?
Everywhere. I slept at my friend's house. When my mother wasn't mad at me, she let me sleep at her house. Then I couldn't take that no more, and I left. And I always was a kid that ran, you know. And running got me where I am at today. Nowhere. But I don't want no kid to grow up like I did. I thank god my son didn't.
He was valedictorian. He finished high school. He's in college right now. I'm really proud of him.
SM: What is your advice to young people?
1) Stay in school and focus on learning and enjoying learning.
2) Delay pregnancy until married and financially stable and in love with her wife or husband
3) Get help for your anxieties and worries so you do not have to take drugs for being nervous or depressed.
4) Have a spiritual relationship. It has made a huge difference in my life having a higher power. Follow the golden rule and treat others the way you want to be treated.
5) Learn about business, to make money by creating something for someone else that they need.