“She was a sweet, smiling, tiny child whose hair came almost to the ground.” This was how former Chatham Middle School teacher, Alicia Shoup, described the 6th grader who waved to Alicia daily from the classroom next door. Curious to know more about the friendly student, Alicia sought information from school personnel, learning little Alexis Walton had experienced a “sad past” and was still living in what Alicia determined to be a “rough situation.” Alexis had been severely neglected by out-of-state parents unable to care for her and several siblings. An older brother, sister, and Alexis had moved to North Carolina to live with paternal grandparents when Alexis was four years of age. While the grandparents were caring, they weren’t always able to curb the less than loving treatment of Alexis by her older siblings. Alexis recalls being unable to get along with her older brother and sister and wanting to escape the frequent bouts of yelling in her grandparents’ home.
One of Alexis’ early escapes was to walk to the house next door. Here neighbor Michele Peluso French-braided the child’s hair as they sat on the front porch. “I thought that braid would never end,” laughs Michele, who seconded the description that Alexis’ hair was almost as long as she was tall. The Pelusos had met their young neighbor when she was about nine years old and though visits from her brother and sister were fairly routine as well, the Pelusos concluded Alexis was in need of extra attention, love, and the need to feel safe.
Adolescence brought a series of jolting changes placing Alexis on an even more challenging path. Recognizing the need for respite from a difficult home life, Alicia Shoup had initiated contact with Communities in Schools (then Chatham Together) to request mentoring services for Alexis. Mentoring Program Manager, Shirille Lee, approached Alexis’ grandfather, who approved the request. Alexis spoke of her grandfather’s concern that she be given opportunities for outings away from family tensions, outings he and his wife could not provide. Alexis states she struggled academically, particularly with math, during this period. About the time Alicia Shoup would become Alexis’ mentor, the child’s grandfather died. Alexis states although she was initially shy and fearful of the mentoring arrangement, the relationship with Alicia would soon become a lifeline. The weekly time together created a safe space with a trusted confidante supportive of Alexis through the trauma of losing her grandfather, continued strained sibling relations, and declines in her grandmother’s health. While Alicia helped Alexis with homework, primarily encouraging Alexis to complete school assignments, Alicia focused on bringing lighter, more joyful moments to Alexis’ week. She took Alexis bowling, to a day at Shakori Hills, and to outings in nearby towns. Alexis most fondly recalls trips for ice cream to the local Sonic and a trip to the State Fair where they met other mentees from Chatham Together. Alexis remembers she was only slightly above the height requirement to ride the Intimidator, terrors achieved by a steep slow climb followed by a sharp rapid drop. Alexis reports, while it was a bit scary, she was not intimidated.
The next year brought her grandmother’s placement in an adult care home in Orange County, her brother leaving home, the adoption of 14-year-old Alexis and her sister by two different families, and later the death of her grandmother.
Alexis had been fortunate to be mentored by the teacher who had taken an interest in her. Now her good fortune would continue in being adopted by the folks on whose front porch she sat to have her hair braided, Mike and Michele Peluso. In spite of familiarity with the Pelusos, Michele states Alexis felt a lot of uncertainty about her new home and what the future held. “It took a while for Alexis to feel secure and to realize she wouldn’t be tossed aside,” stated Michele.
With the change in Alexis’ living arrangement and following the birth of Alicia’s child, the formal mentoring relationship with Alicia through Chatham Together slowed from weekly meetings. However, the informal mentoring relationship continued with dinners, shopping trips, ice cream outings, Facebook sharing, and phone calls. They enjoyed no-pressure “girl time” together. Alicia also continued to encourage Alexis to complete school assignments. Alexis recalled her academic struggles with grades of D’s and F’s her freshman year at Jordan Matthews High School. Suspecting Alexis was more capable than grades reflected, the Pelusos engaged counselors and tutors to address Alexis’ emotional and academic needs. Alexis’ grades steadily improved and by her senior year she earned all A’s and B’s. She and her older sister became the first in their family to graduate high school, both in the same year.
Alexis credits her Communities in Schools mentor and adoptive parents with pushing her to excel in school. Though she found it “annoying” with many tears shed, she also states, “it was necessary.” She further states had it not been for the efforts of Alicia and the Pelusos, she would not have finished school. She states her mentor came along at a time she needed someone to trust and to give her a break from a stressful home. The Pelusos then gave her a stable, loving home.
When asked how Alexis has changed through the years, Alicia and Michele gave similar characterizations. Alicia discussed a sense of confidence Alexis has developed, borne from knowing she was supported through those tough years and continues to be supported by her former mentor and others who care about her. Michele added that in working on “her internal, as well as external challenges,” Alexis has become a strong person. Michele stated Alexis has learned and will continue to learn skills necessary to deal with predictable challenges ahead as Alexis charts her future course.
What does that future course look like for Alexis? Since high school graduation she has taken courses at Central Carolina Community College, has moved on from the Peluso home, and is currently employed as an Administrative Assistant with the Chatham County Chamber of Commerce. She hopes to pursue studies to become a nurse practitioner.
Alexis reflected on her gratitude to Communities in Schools. Through the mentoring program and Alicia, in particular, she states she watched adults give of themselves to make life better for her and other children needing relief from difficult circumstances. She was inspired to focus on service-related clubs and activities her senior year in high school. She expressed a desire to “give back” to our community in the future, possibly as a mentor. From this somewhat shy, but strong, confident young woman, not intimidated by life, we would sure welcome the gift!
Anne L. Allen