Mariah Iles, a 23-year old single mother of two, battled obstacles for four years before earning her GED through SER’s YouthBuild program, adopting a new outlook, and discovering a new world of possibilities.
“I have been told that I am a fast learner, but I’m still figuring out my long-term plan,” said Mariah. “I want to be and do so many things. I feel an urgent need to give back to my community. My plan is not one unheard of… if you want to be in a great position to give back to community, go to college and learn something- shape it or someone else will.”
This is not a statement Mariah would have ever considered thinking or saying just four years ago.
Born to an 18-year old mother and 27-year old father who weren’t ready to be parents, Mariah grew up in less-than-ideal circumstances.
“I actually don’t remember a thing about my life prior to the age of 13, when I met my parents for the first time. I first met my mother, and soon after met my father... [and] right after, my life took a turn for the worse.”
Mariah started spending more time with her father. Eager for love, affection, and validation, she endured years of abuse without telling anyone.
“I thought this was love,” said Mariah. “At 13, I started spiraling.”
When she tried to stand up for herself one night, things turned ugly.
“When the police got to my dad’s house, I felt so guilty and needed to protect my dad, so I didn’t say a word. I was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and sent to the Texas Youth Commission for the first time. I spent a year there, and went back five more times until the age of 18 for violating probation,” said Mariah. “Every time I got out, I went running back to my dad – I became addicted to his love.”
“Between the ages of 13 and 18 years old, I became pregnant three times. My two oldest children were taken away from me and are living with other families - I think about them every day. I have also lived in halfway homes, shelters, out of a car - you name it. And I once met a man at church who paid for a meal, a place to sleep, and a bus ticket to a shelter. I never got his name, but I pray he is well.”
“My life experiences and behavior had overshadowed an important fact - I am really smart,” said Mariah. “I worked incredibly hard to never give that away. I didn’t go to any school long enough for anyone to track my academic progress. And I was stuck in a cycle I didn’t know how to get out of, so it became easier and easier to hide the fact that I loved to learn. While doing so, I kept digging myself into a deeper and darker hole. I was told I was just like my mom, [which] made me hate myself even more.”
“When I got out of the Texas Youth Commission for the last time, I had my beautiful baby boy. I wanted so desperately to give him a life that looked nothing like mine and I knew I needed to act fast,” said Mariah. “That’s when I read about YouthBuild in the GreenSheet. I was looking for a job in the Greensheet and the words “GED, JOB, jumped out”, so I took a chance and made the call. One of the Career Coaches answered the phone, asked me to bring my documentation to YouthBuild, and I did. “When I met [the YouthBuild team] they told me they would help me finish school and I knew they meant it. I knew then, that I had my chance to finish what I had started. When I started going to this [program], I knew this was my third, fourth, or fifth chance, but a chance nonetheless, so I had to make a fresh start with my life. I knew this was it, this was my chance to feel proud again.”
“One valuable lesson life had tried to teach me in so many different ways that I wasn’t quite ready to learn until I joined YouthBuild was that it is never too late to learn anything in life. If you just let yourself be helped, there are so many opportunities out there in the world, you just have to go out there and get it.“
In Mariah’s tenure with YouthBuild, she left the program and returned, overcame a myriad of personal challenges, and gave birth to her youngest son. The one constant was the team at SER encouraging her to get to the finish line.
“Time and time again, I had gotten in my own way and time and time again the YouthBuild and SER staff pulled out their “whatever it takes” strategies to remind me that I was worth the investment and attention,” said Mariah. “They sometimes got on my nerves because of how much they cared- they refused to lower their expectations to meet mine.”
“Life took a few twists and turns, and while it took me a bit longer than I wanted, but I’m proud to say I’m now a GED graduate,” said Mariah. “And while I am proud of this accomplishment- this is simply a stepping stone for me.”
“I want to be so many things. One of them is to be the founder of a women’s and children’s shelter. My life is proof that NO hole is too dark for light OR too deep for a helping hand to reach down. I want to be that light, I want to be that helping hand.”
“This is the impact of programs like YouthBuild, or people like the [team at SER] - they are about much more than impacting a young person’s life. It extends to the communities we come from because we want success so we can be in a position to give back and help support others. You just have to show that you are willing to work hard- and we just need to stop getting in our own way.”
Currently, Mariah is working as a security guard to support her two sons and is “going with the flow” to figure out her next steps in life. She has a passion for makeup and hopes to launch a career in cosmetology while giving back to her community.
“But my story is about much more than that now. It is about defining success, letting the people that care about me continue to support me, and putting in the work that will be needed in order for me to reach the level of success I aspire to reach,” said Mariah. “I have been told that change often looks like a few steps forward, a few hundred steps backwards, a few steps to the right and left, and then one huge leap of faith.”
“Just 4 years ago, I could not make eye contact with anyone asking for permission to support me… I want everyone to be proud of me. I want to be looked at differently. And it starts with opportunities like this,” said Mariah.
“Today Mariah is not a sexually and physically abused or helpless young woman, today Mariah is not a high school dropout - today I’m not just another statistic,” she said. “My story is still being written.”
Youth like Mariah may benefit from SER’s newest initiative, 8 Million Stories, which works with juvenile justice system-involved youth through the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department and launched in January 2017.
For more information on 8 Million Stories or YouthBuild, please visit SER’s website.