EAST PALO ALTO (KPIX 5) — Deja Sims greets us with a warm smile at Eastside College Prep, in East Palo Alto, where she had just graduated. As the cameraman sets up lights and I go over some notes, I look up and notice that Deja is off to the side, quietly humming and dancing- not in a “look at me!” kind of way, but as if she is simply enjoying the moment in her own head, thinking of a favorite song.
Later, her Students Rising Above advisor, Shelly Randisi puts into words what I have just seen: “she somehow walks around with this halo of positive energy all the time. It’s like she’s dancing to music as she walks in the door. Sometimes she is dancing!”
Indeed she is!
Deja sums up her attitude this way: “Knowing everything I’ve been through and knowing that I can continue to keep going. That’s resilience. That’s my favorite word, resilence.” She punctuates that sentence with a resonating laugh.
Deja was only eight when her mom simply left her at a relative’s home in Palo Alto. Days passed and no one could get ahold of her mother. A few months later, she finally came back for her little girl. That was just the beginning of Deja’s life of moving between homes and relatives.
At Eastside College Prep, Deja shows us her old dorm room where she eventually lived for three and a half years.
It was the longest she has ever lived in one place – a boarding school in East Palo Alto for low-income kids who are the first in their family to go to college.
Deja has been accepted to Wesleyan University in Connecticut. She says she wants to set an example for her many siblings.
Between her mother’s and her father’s children, she has 11 siblings- many of them half brothers and half sisters. They live in about a half dozen different cities with different relatives.
When she was with her mom she would constantly see her being abused by her boyfriend. “He hit her all the time and for someone like me who would do anything for my mother, it hurt to watch the abuse”, she says. When they would fight, Deja would take her sisters and leave.
What bothered her the most was that her mother wouldn’t leave him. “She allowed him to stay so long as he apologized,” she says, something Deja has firmly decided she will never tolerate.
It took awhile for Deja to figure out her mom was using drugs. “She was in and out of jail to be honest,” she says now.
When her mom left, Deja was in charge of her siblings. “I made sure my sisters took baths and were in bed, watched movies. I read to them.” She grew up cooking and running the house.
Her father was on the street a lot and is not currently a big part of her life.
Deja lists all the places they loved: Mt.View, to East Palo Alto. San Jose, Modesto, back to East Palo Alto, back to Modesto, moving over and over, repeatedly being left by one parent or another.
“I started to feel not loved. Like abandoned,” she says.
I asked her what changed that for her. “School,” she answered without hesitation. “I loved school. It distracts me from everything. Learning- the more the better.”
The library is her safe place. She would go there to have a quiet moment, and can take you right to her favorite shelves.
“I’ve always been a reader. I started with Cam Jenson books when I was little, then Nancy Drew then young adult urban books and now I just read everything,” she says. And for a little girl living a hard reality, it took on another purpose: ” It took me to a different place. It put me in someone else’s world and not mine.”
Finally, she got into Eastside College Prep where she could live in the dorm. The deep relationships she developed with staff helped kick-start the healing. She learned to trust and talk about her story.
And there was a cousin with whom she stays now who gave her love and shelter. When she wasn’t at Eastside she would go there.
The roles have reversed with her mom now. Deja has become the one who makes sure her mom is okay. “She just has kind of this unconditional love for her mom where she forgives her,” says Shelly Randisi. “ I think a lot of people who are abandoned can’t do that…. She just has no anger. No resentment “
The day we interviewed her, Deja’s mother was in jail again. “Even if she is out of jail, she’ll call me every three months, “ says Deja. “I try and get her to call me once a month so I know she’s ok.”
“I really think there is something within Deja that’s special,” says Randisi. ”I don’t know where it comes from, but she deals with things. She deals with things. I don’t think she just buries her feelings and I don’t think she buries what’s happened to her. She actually deals with things that have happened to her.”
Deja graduated with a 3.8. GPA. “You know when you really work at something really hard and like you kind of don’t see anything until you get a little dent in there?” she asks. “ I feel like this is a big scoop and I’m still working at it, but I’m proud of the accomplishment I’ve made.”