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Hushed silence falls over the audience as the screens slide into place—double projections of a woman walking along a fence, looking off ahead as she says, “I feel so torn up that I come back here and it’s still the same… worse… the same.. worse.” The picture then fades to the name of documentary: Carissa.
Carissa, a documentary based on the early life of Carissa Phelps, a UCLA graduate, was recently screened at the University of San Diego’s Institute of Peace and Justice on May 23rd, with a follow-up panel discussion including Detective James Hunter from the San Diego Innocence Lost Task Force, Michelle Atkins from San Diego Youth Services, and, of course, Carissa herself. It was co-hosted by local non-profit organizations: The Junior League of San Diego and Outside the Lens.
But telling her story openly in front of a room full of people was not always so easy for Carissa. At age 12, Carissa ran away from home, a place of poverty and abuse that she couldn’t handle. “It was the mentality,” she remembers, “that my parents—my stepdad—could put his hands on us in any way that he wanted… and it was somehow okay because of what his father had done to him.” She was picked up on the street and was taken in by a human sex trafficker, a “pimp,” and was sold into a type of slavery, child prostitution. She returned home, only to find the situation devastatingly the same, and then kept running away, back into the hands of Icey, her pimp.
She was arrested on several charges, and brought to juvenile hall, where she met Ron, her counselor. “Once I started going to school, going to counseling,” she remembers, “I realized I was in the safest place.” “[Ron] was the first person in two years to ask what happened to me on the streets,” she said, “he told me I had potential.”
Carissa left juvenile hall with a newfound passion for math, enrolled into school, and stayed enrolled, even when her home situation grew worse. When she returned years later to tell her story on film, she was pleased to find “real” hard copies of Algebra I textbooks when she returned to juvenile hall. “I had a photo-copied algebra book,” she smiles, hugging the textbook. “If I never had taught myself algebra,” she recalls, “I would never have had any self-confidence. I never would have made it through community college, I would never have made it through high school.”
But algebra proved to be more than enough motivation to complete high school. Carissa graduated from CSU Fresno with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and later, a Juris Doctorate and MBA from UCLA’s School of Law and Anderson School of Management. It was in the Anderson School of Management where she met David Sauvage who later created the documentary, Carissa, based on her life.
Carissa still visits juvenile hall to work with the youth there. She has to “let herself suffer a little bit,” to remember her past, so she can share her story and inspire others. She says she’s “on a mission” to “give a voice to children on the streets.” “I’m not there yet, but I will be. I think I will be.”
Name: Morgan Chen, 858Teen Contributor and Member of Outside the Lens
School: The Bishop’s School in La Jolla
Fun Facts: She has written two articles for literary magazine, Teen Ink, and has published some poems in youth anthologies. She describes herself as a “storyteller” because she loves creating and telling stories.
Favorites: She loves books and is a die-hard fan of Harry Potter (she is the head of the Harry Potter Club at her school). Her favorite band is Panic! At the Disco and she loves watching Glee. She’s a theatre geek as well, and she hopes to one day see all of her favorite actors on Broadway.
Interests: Besides writing and reading, Morgan enjoys music and plays the piano and the guitar. Her favorite band is Panic! At the Disco and she loves watching Glee. She’s a theatre geek as well, and . In her spare time she likes to learn photography.