In a family that included my parents and six children, I am the oldest girl with two younger sisters and three older brothers. The oldest son, Henry, was born mentally disabled. Being his sister changed my life as a young girl and helped me to be the woman I am today.

I knew that Henry was different from the rest of my siblings by the time I was 7. He always needed help with everything. We all helped him get dressed, combed his hair and tied his sneakers. Henry attended some special schools with other kids with disabilities and would later become a resident at the West Seneca Developmental Center.

Our family had a difficult time raising Henry. He would go for walks and then would be missing for a few days. I didn’t understand why he would run away from our family. The police would help our family search the neighborhood for him. We would cry many days and nights, praying for his safe return back home and our prayers were answered. Henry would end up in strange places, but always was safe because many people provided him with shelter, food and clothing. I loved all the hardworking case workers, law guardians and professional therapists who came to our home to help us with my brother. They were my heroes.

That’s why as a young girl growing up, I wanted to help others in need just as others helped my brother. My first job at the age of 16 was with the Mayor’s Summer Youth program, where I handed out lunches to the younger kids who attended camp in the Fruit Belt neighborhood. Working as a cabin counselor with children with disabilities at Camp Loyal Town in Hunter also was a life-changing experience. It was amazing and rewarding, and I learned so much: Never look down on others. No one is perfect. Never take things for granted. We never know what to expect in life. When I help others, I get a good feeling in my soul.

My parents did all they could to keep our family together, but when we lost our home in a fire, it devastated us. We lost our home, family portraits and the piano that my father bought for my mother. But we still had each other and I still had my dreams to help others in need. I kept my faith and as life went on I continued to work at summer camps, churches and after-school programs. I wanted to make a difference in my community.

Today, I work as a night counselor at a shelter for runaway youth, ages 13 to 17. For 22 years, I have provided them with food, shelter, clothing and a warm bed. Sometimes it can be really hard working with this younger generation, which includes members of my own family. Some make bad choices. No matter how I try to guide them down the right path, some make a wrong turn. I may save some kids, but I can’t save them all. They must realize that it is easy to get into trouble but hard to get out. That’s why I will always encourage them to stay in school, stay away from drugs and stay out of gangs. They need to know how great they can be when they choose the right path.

I know that I am the person I am today because of my parents. My mother has always believed in me, even when I didn’t believe in myself. That’s why I will continue to work to save as many children’s lives I can.