Christina Meredith — University of North Florida student, published author, national speaker, National Guard sergeant and former Miss California pageant winner — had a little time in her schedule to talk about her new book on her old life: A quick 45 minutes at 7 a.m. on a drizzly Friday.
Then she had to get in Black Betty, her two-door Honda, to be at Camp Blanding at 10 a.m. for three days of training in the Guard. Once back, she’ll be on the road again.
“I go see ‘Huckabee,'” she said. “I’m doing ‘Huckabee’ again. ‘Dr. Phil.’ Fox News, I’ll be doing some work with them again. I can’t tell you how many radio stations and podcasts around the country, I mean it’s ridiculous. I’ve already done ‘The Today Show,’ I’ve already done some Fox News, I’ve done ‘The 700 Club.’ I’ve done a lot. I can’t name them all.”
She chuckled: Go-go-go.
That’s how she’s lived for about as long as she can remember, trying to escape a life of abuse, hunger and homelessness in St. Johns County, as detailed in her memoir, “CinderGirl,” published March 5 by Zondervan.
And she’s made it. When not traveling the country promoting her book and her nonprofit foundation to support homeless girls, she has a nice place in downtown Jacksonville and what looks like a secure future.
There’s officer training in July, then a final semester at UNF, then a commission as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army. After that?
“My long term goal is to run for office, but that’s a few years down the way. I mean I have a one-, three-, five- 10-, 15-, 20-year plan. That’s how I operate. I’m in the middle of this 20-year plan that I have. It’s real. It keeps me focused, it keeps me task-oriented. It keeps me motivated on days I’m not motivated; I’m human, can I just not have responsibilities today?”
Meredith is 32 and has been in the National Guard three years. She’ll graduate UNF in December with a major in political science with a focus on foreign affairs.
“I took the long way around to get things done,” she said.
That long way around is detailed in “CinderGirl,” which takes its title from the Cinderella story. She identifies with that: a young woman facing cruelty and endless work, yet somehow ending up getting a crown [that of Miss California, in her case].
In her book she tells of being physically and psychologically abused by her mother and sexually abused, repeatedly, by an uncle. She tells of pulling clumps of her own hair out and being teased at school. She tells of long hours of work to take care and even feed her siblings, of being made a ward of the state and entering the foster care system.
She tells of couch-surfing for months and then living in a two-door yellow Chevrolet she named “Sunny,” taking beach showers at Vilano Beach to stay clean and working multiple jobs to get a place of her own. She tells of finding hope in the Bible and a home at Nease High School’s NJROTC program.
“Nease ROTC saved my life, hands-down,” she said. “There’s no other way around that. It gave me structure, it gave me purpose, it gave me camaraderie, it gave me everything. They were even feeding me every day for four years. It gave me a family.”
Meredith writes of trying to find a fresh start in California, where she was approached by a man who suggested she try out for the beauty pageant. Initially skeptical, she eventually looked into it.
In April 2013 she was named Miss California, besting a big field of competitors, many of whom, unlike her, had been preparing for that day for years.
Meredith figured she had an edge. She made foster care reform and telling her story an integral part of her platform at the pageant.
She’s used that title to get more publicity for her story and for her nonprofit, the Christina Meredith Foundation, so that others won’t have to go through what she did. She feels compelled, she says, to act.
“This isn’t what I planned for myself,” she said. “I wanted to be a wife and a mom. But that obviously is not in the cards for me at this point. I hope one day it is. My ability to serve in and out of uniform creates in me responsibilities and obligations that are just inherently there. As a communicator, a national speaker, I fly all over the country and talk to thousands of people. That’s a leadership position, because my words have power.”
One of her concerns is seeing more is done to care for the 20,000 children who each year age out of the system when they turn 18. Most are then on their own again, left to survive, joining those before them who aged out.
She knows that all too well. Meredith herself became homeless after she turned 18.
“So we have these 18-, 19-, 20-year olds who have been trying to make it on their own for years,” she said. “Seventy percent of boys end up in the prison system, 60 percent of the girls end up pregnant, and we wonder why we have these issues?”
While “CinderGirl” tells of the horrors and struggles she faced, Meredith also takes care to tell of the people who showed kindness to her along the way — classmates, NJROTC leaders, her foster family, the acquaintances who brought her food so she and her siblings could eat.
They helped her see a way out.
“I think it was God’s grace to let a few people into our lives and really love us, so I could get bits and pieces of what that looked like,” she said. “I always knew I didn’t want to be like my family … I’m loving, I’m kind, I want to be that way. I want to have a loving family. I want to be healthy. I didn’t want to hurt people.”
©2019 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.)
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