Davanna graduated from Aviva Residential Treatment and Aviva High School in 2015. Here’s an excerpt of the speech she read at her Commencement ceremony:
I would like to thank all of you for joining me and my peers on this special day that we will remember for a lifetime.
My name is Davanna. I feel I cannot stand here on this stage and tell you why this is a life changing moment for me without me giving you insight of how I got to this point in my life.
My biological father and mother David Rhines and Allana Harris were the new age of Bonnie and Clyde mixed with gangsta Romeo and Juliet with an ending even Shakespeare couldn’t create.
My mother and father were and still are good people. They just had a wild side that could not be tamed no matter how many times you put them in a cage. On December 7, 1996, they transported [my mother] to Martin Luther King Hospital, where I took my first breath of only the beginning of my journey.
Since my mother was not set to be released from jail, I was forced to be put up for adoption. But luckily God gave my father’s mother Brenda Rhines the strength, compassion and love to march in there and adopt me.
My life at that home was warm and loving. I would play outside, hang out with my grandfather Howard and a few friends on the block. I didn’t have a care in the world. At the time I considered Mema both my mother and father I never guessed there might be a woman and man that technically were.
It was my second year of elementary when my happy little life became something dark and deadly. A group of kids began teasing me about how I didn’t have real parents and how my grandma would walk me to school with a shopping cart. At first I didn’t care because I knew Mema was my mom and dad and that the reason she uses a shopping cart is because her back is bad from carrying me around when I was a baby.
Mema never raised me to be violent so I quickly ignored them. But the taunts soon turned into violent actions. One day as I walked to the P.E. field to eat my lunch by an acorn tree, someone grabbed my arms I struggled hard but more hands joined as they pulled me towards the boys bathroom.
I fought hard but not hard enough they pushed me on the cold nasty floor and began to throw wet paper towels at me, one boy poured liquid soup on me and said “You are too ugly to be a girl and too weird to be a boy, that’s why you don’t have parents.” I got up pushing the boy out of my way and ran out of the bathroom.
One of the teachers saw me and sent me to the principal’s office. When I told her what happened she didn’t believe me even though I was still covered with the ambush. That’s when I cracked. I told Mema what had happened and she called up there every day to fight for me but no one cared, so it kept happening.
I began hiding in the building but I couldn’t hide the pain and confusion I felt. I started to harm myself, and my grandma sent me to mental hospitals almost every week; I was put on various medications that didn’t suit my little body.
When I finally finished elementary, I thought middle school was a fresh start, I was so wrong. The bullies were bigger and pure evil. I didn’t talk to my grandma about it but I’m sure she heard me crying at night, fearing the next day to come. I know my grandma was hurting with me more so because she couldn’t stop the hurt and evil that might shape me when I got older.
My cuts became deeper as my heart grew colder.
The day that made me the animal lover I am today was in the year 2003. I was taking out the trash when I saw something run past me so fast I couldn’t make out what it was. I peeked in the top hole in the side of the apartment and saw two green eyes staring at me through the dark.
I should have been afraid. I should have went in the house but instead I said to the green eyes, “Stay here.” I grabbed money and ran to the store, I got a can of cat food and went back to the hole . I was disappointed to find the eyes weren’t there anymore. I opened the can and placed it in the hole. The next day the can was licked clean and on the ground.
Every day I would go to the hole, open a new can and tell the cat about the new assault at school. It never came out while I was there but I felt its presence watching me.
Three months later the guy I thought was my uncle finally broke it to me that he was my father and the reason he didn’t say anything is because he wasn’t sure I was his. In the same day my best friend left me to hang with the group that bullied me, and I got into an intense argument with my grandmother. I felt sick, tired and done playing the game of life.
I went to the store and instead of buying a sharpener for a blade I bought a box cutter. I ran to my secrete hole, forgetting to bring the cat food. I said to the darkness, “I can’t do this anymore, it’s too much pain I have to end it.” I remember pressing the tip deep in my main artery on my wrists ready to make a final cut.
That’s when I felt something touch me, I looked over and saw a fully gray cat with green eyes. I was too shocked to move as the cat jumped in my lap, and that was the moment I felt it, the feelings of love, trust, courage and friendship.
I scooped the cat up and brought her to Mema, who quickly said “Misty?” the name of the cat she had to leave in Jersey after a fire broke out in her apartment. The cat quickly responded to Mema and became a part of our family.
Misty was an incredible, smart and even sassy. Misty taught me strength and compassion. My life wasn’t better; the bullies were still there.
My depression grew into rage and I began fighting at school attacking the bullies or anyone that I thought might become one. I caused chaos in the school and ditched with friends. My foster mom was a good-hearted lady she even dealt with me even after I bit one of the foster girls because I became paranoid she would turn against me.
My motto was “get them before they get you.” At the end of my second year in the foster home we got a new girl that was older and tougher. We got along at first but after an incident, I was done.
And that’s when I started my chain of group homes. At each one I became tougher and less afraid, which was not a good thing.
I noticed I was becoming my parents so I grew distant from people… even my grandma. I was scared I would hurt her somehow. I would call and visit her but I never really talked to her like before.
When I entered high school everything was different. No one paid attention to who I was as if I didn’t exist.
I was confused and quickly overwhelmed with how many kids there were that I had to protect myself against. I started hiding again and on one of my hiding trips I was introduced to marijuana from a random boy. I felt my panicking feeling slowly started to disappear with every hit I took. That was when I became a user to help with my anxiety.
I eventually ended up at Rosemary’s placement, and for about a year I did relatively well. But after I gave my roommate a concussion, I ended up in juvenile hall.
I knew I had to change something in my life so when I was released to Aviva group home I tried hard to be good and not fight so I wouldn’t hurt anyone anymore. It wasn’t easy to adjust to such a large group home and I had a lot of bumps on the road.
I’ve left Aviva three times for different reasons but every time I seemed to end up back at the faded pink house. This is my third and final time coming back to Aviva as a resident because I am aging out.
Even though Aviva can be very hectic there is always that one person that’s there for us when we need them. Aviva taught me how to deal with my aggressive side and to also have empathy for other people.
I still have a lot to learn and I know my journey is just beginning. That’s why I plan to get an amazing career that pays a lot of money so I can give back to not only animals but people as well. I’m planning to go into law enforcement as either an animal cop or a detective, I will also study veterinary science and business so I can one day build an organization for animals and homeless people.
I would like to end my speech by thanking Aviva staff for tolerating me.
I would especially like to thank Mr. Brown for taking me back all three times and not giving up on me. Even when you felt I wasn’t listening…I was always listening.
I would like to thank the Aviva girls for just being who they are and for all the moments you made me laugh or cry happy tears. I wish my parents were here to witness this but they’re still Bonnie and Clyde. I want to thank them for giving me life.
Last but not least I would like to thank the two ladies that raised me to be the peaceful, animal loving, courageous person I am today. Without them I would have become corrupt. So first I would like to thank my grandmother Mema for opening her heart and home to me and always having my back when I was in trouble.
I don’t tell you enough Mema but I love you more than I love anything on this earth …and yes, that means I love you more than animals. Me and you have been through a lot together and I want to tell you after 18 years that I’m sorry for all the times we’ve argued. I would also like to thank my grandfather Howard for also supporting me.
And finally I would like to thank my cat Misty for teaching me to have the love and compassion for all animals. Misty was not just a cat. She was truly special. I got to be with her when she became skinny and fragile after she purposely gave me two litters of kittens in memory of her before she disappeared.
I’m very excited for the next chapter in my life…Thank you for all being here today.
Learn more about Aviva’s 2015 Graduation Ceremony: Aviva High School Graduates Stand Proud and Strong
Read more speeches from graduates of Aviva High School’s Class of 2015: