Reaching Out

Heather Kristin, Mentor with Girls Write Now in NYC

by Laura (all photos courtesy of Heather Kristin)

Heather Kristin and I first met as freshman theatre majors at Miami University in southern Ohio.  We were fast friends, and when she announced that she was moving back to New York City and wasn’t coming back the next year, I was nervous that I wouldn’t make another friend like her.  Luckily for me, I soon became her sister’s roommate!

Heather has written for Glamour, Huffington Post, Salon, Slate, and for the anthology LIVE AND LET LOVE (Simon and Schuster).  She has been interviewed by Oprah live on-camera, in Elle Magazine, on Latino NPR, and on Huffington Post Live.  She’s also being featured in Woman’s Day this November (check out page 67!).

Heather has been honored by the State of New Jersey for mentoring at-risk teen girls for almost a decade with Girls Write Now. She teaches violin and lives in New York with her husband and two daughters, Daisy and Clover.

Heather with Daisy

Heather with Daisy

Here is Heather, in her own words:

Years ago as a skinny, buck toothed, incredibly sensitive, and physically awkward girl, I never imagined that I would be a ten-year mentor at Girls Write Now.  I lived in denial about my unconventional childhood by getting braces, jaw surgery, and by being fashionably well-dressed, thanks to H&M.  Sensing something was missing from my inner life, I took dozens of on-line writing courses, graduated from college, wore the mask of actress, and performed in folk bands.  I never thought I’d share my deepest, darkest secrets to the world, especially not one-on-one to teen girls.  But secrets have a way of not staying silent.

Heather at a Girls Write Now event

Heather at a Girls Write Now event

It took me many years to tell my stories because I didn’t believe that I was enough.  I never had friends besides my twin sister.  Neighborhood kids just stared at me like I was weird.  I wore a lot of dark lipstick and black.  Goth wasn’t really in style yet.

My low-self-esteem might have come from the fact that my sister and I didn’t attend school for ten years, we grew up in extreme poverty, and we were homeless for one year when we were ten years old.

I was very much alone.

Beginning at age eight, I played my violin on the crowded street corners of New York City for money.

That first day on the 57th Street, I was terrified.  My hands shook like crazy on my violin.  My bow bounced on the strings.  But one thing bigger than my fear, God help me, was my desire to change my life.  And to eat a decent meal.

After a few months, I played my violin on Fifth Avenue with even more gusto than I had in the past.  I was a star on the sidewalk.  In my mind, the street was my stage.  A space where I could exist with all the other freaks and beggars.  I would live on Fifth Avenue until I could get out of being a welfare kid and then run out into the world and show myself.

One day a man in a limousine pulled up in front of Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue.  He commanded, “Play me your best song.”

I played the only song I knew by heart at age nine, “Au Clair De Lune.”  After the song he handed me a $100 bill.  I was on top of the world!  My family was going to be able to eat.  I mean, we were not going to pay the rent with just a $100 bucks, but we could eat.  Sadly, that $100 dollars would not last forever.

My family rooted threw the garbage of local fruit stands in search of something to eat.  All the fruit had moldy patches or bruises.  Later, our mother cut out the bad parts and we’d eat the fruit.  On really bad days, I chewed on toilet paper.

Thinking and dreaming about my next meal filled me with much anxiety.  I flexed every single muscle in my legs, grinded my teeth at night, hardly slept, chewed on my hair, and finally I dug my fingernails into the back of my neck, leaving bloody crescents.  No one could see under my long brown hair that I had caused my skin to bleed.  No one knew the hunger or pain I was in.

Luckily, in the midst of hardship, I received free violin lessons from our community music school, Turtle Bay.  The violin comforted me and music restored my soul.  My weekly violin lessons gave me something to look forward to and helped bring me out of myself.

Thankfully, the lessons continued even when at age ten, we were thrown out onto the street, with no home to call our own.  The three of us joined the crack heads, the mentally ill, and the destitute in a shelter.  We were homeless in New York City.


Getty Images’ New York Post photo of Heather (center) with her mother and twin sister when they were homeless.

My family huddled together, sang songs from The Sound of Music, and pretended not to be scared of being stabbed, robbed, beaten, and slashed while we slept.  We left the shelter and found strangers in supermarkets to harbor us for a few nights.

But like I said before, I had one constant in my life: my once a week violin lessons at our neighborhood music school.  At the time, I had no idea that these free music lessons would change and ultimately save my life.  When I showed up at my violin lesson, I played Schubert and acted as if I hadn’t just come from the soup kitchen or the shelter.

After my violin teacher encouraged me, I knew that I was born for more than this and I had a choice.  I could let my economically and emotionally starved environment push me down, let my ideas die, and say, “Life’s too hard!”  Or choose a different story for my life.

Heather teaching violin

Heather teaching violin

I kept practicing my rental violin every day because I knew everything would be alright if I did.  And you know what?  A year later, HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) helped us move into a one-bedroom walk-up in Hell’s Kitchen.

Soon thereafter, Hartley House Community Center allowed my sister and me to attend summer day camp for free.  It was the first time that I felt like a normal kid.

It was the first time (for real) that I wasn’t alone.

Today my stories and songs still sound sad at times, but they remind me of where I’ve been and how my experiences shaped me to be brave no matter the obstacle.  My past will always be there, but it won’t get in the way of my future.

Heather with her first mentee, Meghan

Heather with her first mentee, Meghan

I’m proud to boast that my very first mentee with Girl Write Now, Meghan, who I mentored for all four of her years of high school graduated from Amherst and just got her first job at Penguin Random House.  I couldn’t be more thrilled.

Back at home in New York, I’m blissfully in love with my husband, my six-year-old daughter Daisy, and 16-month old Clover.  Recently, I taught Daisy how to play “Au Clair De Lune” on violin, the song I played so many years ago for the rich man in the limo outside Trump Tower.  It’s a full circle moment and is proof that there is a purpose to everything.

Heather teaching Daisy violin

Heather teaching Daisy violin

I know from personal experience that you can lose everything in a blink of an eye.  So I try to be calm and less afraid of sadness, loving deeply, and losing things that I may never find.  I have lost a lot in my life: a home, jobs, but I’m also thankful for how much I have.

Homelessness can happen by chance, by unexpected tragedies, by struggling with illness, addiction, by government bureaucracy, or by bad choices.  But no matter the reason, everyone who is homeless needs the same things: a home, health care, and a hug.

We as a community need to support our neighbors, families, children, teenagers, elderly, people with disabilities, and veterans of our armed forces in these times of extreme income inequality, high housing costs, lack of affordable housing, and low wages.  If we can be a support system and bring stability in the home, then we can address the serious problems that can lead to homelessness.

I want to challenge you to share what you have with the world.  Whatever it is–a talent, your money, a skill, a solution, a smile, even your sad songs and stories.  You don’t have to change the whole world, but you can change your world, you can change your life, and you can change someone else’s life.  I’m living proof that it is possible.

Every day, every moment, you can make a difference. Pull a child out of poverty and help end homelessness by becoming an advocate.  Even if you think it won’t work, just try.  Don’t be afraid of being different like I was so many years ago.  Ban together as a community, brainstorm ideas, support each other.  Tell each other, “You are not alone.”

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