Today Jessica Manuel is a highly-motivated successful professional. But eight years ago, it was a different story altogether – she was pregnant, destitute and just seventeen.
by Jessica Manuel
The love of family is a love like no other. It transcends the finite and embraces the infinite. It is as boundless as time and space.
It’s been said there are moments, among all the heart beats of a single life, when everything changes. Those moments stand forever as the road sign marking the past from the future; from who you were and who you might yet become.
My moment came more than a decade ago, pacing on my balcony waiting for a stranger to pick up the phone. It had taken weeks for me to dial that number I scrawled on a scrap of newspaper. Whoever would answer my call, good person or bad, could change everything.
I was seventeen and seven months pregnant. The road that brought me to that phone call had been marked by instability. My only constant, aside from my twin sister who was the only person I ever trusted, was uncertainty. I was only three years removed from living on the streets, surrounded by other children looking for love in all the wrong places. Regular meals were still a luxury and I survived through the kindness of community services providing me with food, clothing and shelter.
I was enrolling into my fifth high school. And though I managed to land a job at a local coffee shop and found my first apartment, I was still in poverty. There were only two things I knew for sure. I could not raise this child myself. And if I did not do something drastic, something life-altering, my child would find herself in the same situation. The cycle had to be broken. Something had to change.
It was my grandmother who had given me the phone number. She knew that I was investigating multiple options, as I was uncertain of my final decision. She had an idea. Her niece, a cousin and relative stranger, might be able to help. She had quite the story herself as cancer survivor – she was a woman who desired and would welcome another child into her family.
For weeks that number stared at me while I contemplated my choices. Finally, I found the courage to dial that number. What would I say to this strange relative I knew very little about?
The voice that answered sounded about my mother’s age. Her name was Shelley. Her voice was soft and her tone was serious but non-judgmental. My history was far from glamorous and I struggled while talking about it. For years I had been gripped by a deep fear of abandonment, feeling unworthy of family or stability.
On the phone I felt completely vulnerable, but there was something about Shelley’s tone and manner that put me at ease. She was a stranger, yes. But one I felt I could trust.
I explained who I was and about my situation of being a lost, single, malnourished pregnant mother. Would Shelley hang up? Would she say nothing? Would I, or my baby, be rejected?
Instead, she said something that would change the course of my life forever.
“Look Jess, you’re not going to understand my family or how we’ve raised our children until you spend time with us,” she said. “Why don’t you come to the cottage for the weekend?”
Those words gave me shivers.
I poured my heart out, sharing some trials and tribulations that would encourage most people to wash their hands of me, but Shelley opened her home and heart to me. Looking back, that was the first time I felt acceptance, the first time I experienced the love of a mother.
The weekend was filled with conversation that lasted hours. I shared more about my upbringing, poor decision making, and worse, the effects of being homeless since I was 14. It was therapeutic to speak so freely. Ron and Shelley listened. There was no judgement.
As a result of their response, for the first time I understood that I had to be accountable for my own actions. I quickly learned that being born into poor circumstances was not an excuse for poor decisions. I was in charge of my own destiny, they told me. Excuses were not acceptable.
At the age of seventeen, I was far behind in shaping my own future. That started with the simple things such as brushing my teeth, practicing manners and proper behaviour and wearing appropriate clothing. I had to learn the basics of what was acceptable and what was not.
It was a scary thing, being immersed in this environment; an environment bleeding with self-discovery.
That weekend was memorable. The fear of abandonment was slowly melting away and a new love was forming with Shelley, Ron and their two children.
I spent time in their home three to four times a week, learning to cook, learning to be confident and being part of something that once terrified me – a family. I felt like I was meant to be there from the beginning and I never wanted to leave.
A month passed and the routine was consistent. The day came when I became a mother and everything changed. Christine was born at a healthy 7 pounds, 4 ounces and she was more beautiful than I could have possibly imagined.
There are no words that do justice for how my heart felt when I saw her for the first time. I held her for only a moment, and it was the most powerful and beautiful moment of my life. With the first connection between mother and daughter, the thought of adoption vanished.
I could do this on my own, or so I thought.
For eight weeks I struggled, not realizing how selfish I was being. My schooling had to be completed, a part-time job had to be kept. Motherhood came secondary. The road was hard. I was so very tired.
I chose to raise Christine on my own. Shelley and Ron continued to be supportive. I soon came to see my situation more clearly and plans changed for everyone.
Because I was never nurtured as a child, I did not know how to nurture a baby. I did the best I could with what I knew; I just didn’t know. The role of a mother was not understood and there came a time where I placed Christine into kinship foster care with Ron and Shelley.
That same feeling of vulnerability when I made that phone call washed over me again, and I cried.
They held me close and without hesitating Shelley said, “Jess, if you choose our family, this is not a drop and run. This is a lifetime commitment and you need to be accountable for the rest of your life. We love you and want you to be a part of our family too”
I was ready. Christine and I both found our forever family.
Christine with her two new brothers, Ryan (left) and Michael (right.)
I enrolled into my sixth high school and for the first time in my life, I had a feeling of confidence and sense of belonging. I now knew there were no excuses for bad behaviour but there were solid consequences. With family, a real family, came expectations, responsibilities and boundaries.
Eight years have passed and we are fully committed as a family now more than ever.
Where I once seemed destined to repeat a cycle of poverty and hardship, I am now the first from my biological family to graduate with a post-secondary education. The first to break the chain of instability.
Shelley and Ron not only became my best friends, but also surrogate parents and advocates. The foundation I found with them and my daughter encouraged me to grow, to become a self-motivated, driven and, I hope, a thoughtful and caring woman.
Despite the difficult times, I’ve learned to see the beauty in my story and have found strength in sharing it. Where once I could not see past my own reflection, I now want to leave a positive legacy that can help others.
At nineteen I started speaking to children with similar challenges. I later was invited to be a keynote speaker for the United Way and other non-profit agencies. There is purpose to being vulnerable to hundreds of people, inspiring them to donate money and time to causes that helped save my life.
The opportunity of being a motivational speaker introduced me to international ambassador roles representing Canada for Rotary. After returning, I became a Rotarian and a Board Member for a youth home I resided at over a decade ago.
And today, while still participating in my charity work, I have a full-time and responsible career position that supports my passion.
I will never forget the road that brought me here. I am grateful for everything. From the simple act of purchasing a meal, not only for myself, but being able to buy it for someone else. My heart is forever in debt to the community and I plan to give back for as long as I live.
Without a doubt, I stand here proud of who I am and of having made the decision to take the risk and call that number. The hardest part is over and I have nothing but hope for the future of both myself and my birth daughter.
A road sign can point you in the right direction, but sometimes you need help to read it.
Shelley and Ron became my guiding light. Without them and the blessings they’ve bestowed upon me and little Chrissy, things would be much different. I could very well be alone without a family.
Some of us go through life never having to define the word ‘family’ and others find the true meaning of family in miraculous ways. I know that my struggles have brought me to today, celebrating the best years of my life with a family I love, a birth daughter that motivates me every day and a road that’s never travelled alone.
Christine and Jessica today