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A Shy Girl Finds Her Voice
Mayra Sierra

Growing up in Colombia, I used to be fresca. I would say whatever was in my head. If I didn't like you, I would tell you straight out.

But then I came to New York when I was 13, and it was a different world. In Colombia, I lived with family and I felt comfortable acting however I wanted.

In New York, though, I lived with strangers and had to learn a new language and different manners. I came into foster care soon after I got here, and I guess that was too much for me because I wasn't fresca any longer. Instead I became a shy, shy girl.

'Go to Therapy'

About three years ago my social worker came up to me and told me to go to therapy-just like that! I thought, "But I'm not crazy! Why does she want me to go to therapy?" My social worker said I only had to check it out, and if I didn't like it I didn't have to stay. So like that I agreed.

She told me that the program was called Turtle Bay Music School and was open every Friday. So the next Friday I went. I had to take the train, which I wasn't used to. Thank God I got there fine. I walked into the building, which looked like a school with a big green flag out front-fine. I went upstairs-fine-and spoke to a staff member who told me to go to the waiting area. That wasn't fine. I didn't want to wait in that room, because some other kids were in there and I felt really shy.

At the time, I had this problem that when I heard someone laughing, I'd think, "They must be laughing at me." When I heard someone talking, I'd think, "They must be talking about me." So for me to go to a room full of kids talking and laughing was like a mission impossible.

I told the lady that I just couldn't do it. I almost started crying-that's how scared I was! The lady was nice enough to notice that I wasn't kidding, so she let me wait by myself.

An Open, Friendly Face

So far, I wasn't liking the program too much. Then Diane talked to me. Diane had an open, friendly face. She told me that she would be my therapist and she would also be in charge of the group I would be in. I liked her. She seemed really nice, sweet and caring. She also noticed that I was scared and just spoke to me calmly, which gave me comfort.

I thought therapy would be like in the movies, where the crazy person lays on a long couch while the therapist sits on a straight chair listening and taking notes. Instead we went to a big room with three tall windows, a desk, a piano and a dark red carpet. For about half an hour, Diane and I sat talked about school, friends, life, things I like and things I don't like. I thought it went pretty smoothly.

After that, I had group. I was nervous, but it was a group of 13 and 14-year-old girls, which was good. We played instruments and made music or listened to each other talk.

Expressing Myself in Music

We had drums, a piano, maracas, guitars and tambourines. I felt kind of stupid making noise with those instruments. I wondered, "What the hell am I doing?" Because if you think about it, sitting in a circle with girls and just making noise with an instrument-isn't that kind of stupid?

It took me a while to understand that I could express how I was feeling through music. I could make any sound that I liked to express how angry, calm, excited or sad I was, just by making the sound louder, lower, slower or faster. I learned that I like playing the drums, especially. When I am mad, I can hit them very hard and make a BOOM!

image by Sophia Alexopoulous, image by Sophia Alexopoulos

Expressing my emotions through music does help. It's better to beat the hell out of a drum than hit someone and get into trouble. I tend to keep all my feelings inside and I know that's not good, because sooner or later I will explode. Playing the instruments makes me feel relaxed. I release the anger that I carry inside.

After my first day, I felt comfortable with the people there. I decided to go back every Friday. The program is only for foster care kids, so I knew the other girls had gone through some of the things that I have. It felt nice to know that I wasn't the only girl in the world who's had problems with her family.

Before I went to Turtle Bay, I usually didn't talk to anyone about my feelings. I thought
people might not understand me and I didn't want to bother them with my problems.

I also worried that people would pity me or make me feel embarrassed about asking for their help. Last year, I was going through a rough period and I had a school project due that I couldn't finish, so I talked to the teacher (who was really nice) and explained what I was going through to see if he could give me another day.

My friend overheard and said, "Oh, Mayra, you are just using your problems as an excuse." I couldn't believe what she said. It made me feel like I should keep my feelings to myself.

I've Learned to Speak Up

But talking to my therapist is not like talking to friends or family. I know Diane won't tell anyone because it's her job to keep everything confidential. And when we talk about how I feel, she really listens. It makes me feel more confident to know that she's listening and not laughing at what I say.

Over the last three years, Diane has helped me understand myself and realize that there's nothing wrong with expressing my feelings and saying what I think. We talk over a problem and she asks me questions about what I'm really trying to say and how I want to solve it.

Screaming at My Mom

Since I started working with Diane, I have done many things that I don't think I could've done three years ago, because I would've been too scared. The biggest thing is that I spoke up to my mother. I was always scared of her because she was abusive. She used to hit us a lot, so I used to do everything that she wanted. Even now that she lives in Colombia and I live here, I've always been afraid to tell her no.

But recently I had a big fight with my mother because my brother told her that I liked a guy and my mother got mad. She was screaming like crazy and calling me names. So I screamed back at her, saying, "If I'm a slut, I learned that from you." She started crying and hung up on me.

After that I didn't speak to my mother for more than two weeks. Those two weeks were hard because I usually talk to her almost every day. But after I had that big argument with her our relationship changed. I started to say no to her more often, and I tell her what I think about her actions, which I never did before. I feel closer to her now and I don't feel so scared of her anymore.

Turtle Bay is more than just therapy, though. It's a place that helps teens like me feel comfortable. Turtle Bay always has dinner for us to eat after group sessions and gifts on holidays. The therapists take us out to the movies, to eat and to go bowling. We also put on a show where kids perform songs or poems for friends and family.

For me and the other members of the program, Turtle Bay is like a big family. In three years I've learned a lot-to understand my circumstances and not to let them get to me, to be strong and keep on going, to open up. Everyone learns something different, because each one of us has a different problem. But we all have one thing in common. We have a program that helps us deal with our fears.

Are you a caring adult looking for more stories to help your youth? Go to, a resource for the front-line staff in schools and community based programs to help teens who are struggling with difficult emotions.

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