Rhea Patel, Writer

I met her in fifth grade.

I was a part of the “Big Brothers, Big Sisters” program in my elementary school. Through this program, my counselor paired up students from fifth grade who were chosen to participate with students in kindergarten through second grade who faced hardships in their lives.

We were in the counselor’s office when I first saw the small Hispanic girl. She only came up to my hip. Her dark hair fell in messy waves in front of her face, and right beneath it, her eyes were wide with curiosity. The smile on her face showed off her crooked teeth.

“This is Maria, your little sister,” I heard my counselor say to me.

When I first saw Maria, and even as I got to know her, I couldn’t imagine her facing any hardships, because she was always so happy. I knew better, however, because she wouldn’t have been a part of the program otherwise.

She was shy at first as well, so whenever I ate my lunch with her, we just ate in silence. Gradually, she started warming up to me and even occasionally asked what my favorite color was or how many siblings I had. The questions were always simple and never too inquisitive.

One day, out of the blue, she asked me, “What is your mom like?” I told her, “My mom is wonderful. What is yours like?” She replied in a sad tone, “I like my dad more.” I was curious, but I held it in and changed the conversation.

As the weeks passed, Maria and I grew closer and closer, but I continued to wonder about her home life. I was back in the counselor’s office several months after meeting Maria when my counselor finally told me a little bit more about her.

She told me that her parents were in a custody fight at the moment over Maria and her brother. She told me that Maria’s mother was neglectful, which is why she moved in with her dad. She told me that Maria had moved more times than the average American even though she was just in first grade.

Everything started to piece together for me when Maria told me that she never wanted to go back to California. California was where her mom resided and where Maria used to live. Maria hated her mom so much that she was willing to never see her again.

As a fifth grader, this was incomprehensible to me. I was ignorant to the struggles of the world because my life was so good. I didn’t know that children who face neglect are nine times more likely to be involved in criminal activity, according to the Child Help organization. I didn’t know that the United States has one of the worst records for child neglect. I didn’t even know what neglect fully meant.

On the last day of school, I went to say goodbye to Maria. We made a plan to exchange our parents’ phone numbers so we could continue to stay in touch. When I got to the hallway of crowded first graders, I looked around to find her. I spotted some of her friends and asked them where she was.

“She went back to California to stay with her mom,” a little girl said before running away.

That day, my heart mourned for the loss of a friend and sister. I was upset that she didn’t tell me she was going and that we didn’t even get the chance to exchange numbers.

Now, my heart mourns for what Maria had to go back to. I think about her every once in a while and pray that she is doing better.

Since we weren’t able to stay in touch, all I have left of her are fading memories. The way I like to remember her is not by the terrible life that I now understand she had, but by the bright smile she always carried.

I was supposed to be her mentor, but there’s no one I know that is more inspiring than her. Even in her hard times, she taught me that there is always something to smile about.

If you or someone you know is a victim of child neglect or abuse, please call the National Childhelp Child Abuse Hotline at 1(800) 422-4453.