She's Only Five This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

February 17, 2013
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Natalia is a five-year-old who loves to read, play with Barbie dolls, and make believe that she is a princess, just like many girls her age. But unlike most five-year-olds, Natalia is homeless.

When I signed up to volunteer for the Read to Me program at a shelter in Phoenix, I was eager to serve as a role model for children. Before I knew it, our bus was parked outside the shelter, and my teacher led us inside. As we approached, my heartbeat faster. I prayed the children would like me; I wanted to help them see how wonderful books can be. Once we had name tags on and were seated with books, we impatiently waited for the children. Soon they flooded the room.

A little girl in a fluffy pink jacket and tight black pigtails skipped over to me. She hopped on the chair next to me and smiled. When I introduced myself she exclaimed, “That's my best friend's name!” She asked if I would be her buddy. I agreed immediately and suggested we start our new friendship by reading a book.

I had a few books picked out, but she had some others in mind. She snatched the princess book the second she saw it, crying, “Please read this one to me. I really, really love princesses!” As I read to Natalia, we looked at the pictures and shared our opinions on the prettiest princesses. We made predictions about what would happen, and she even learned a few new words.

Once we finished that book, I asked if she would tell me about herself. She proudly stated she was five years old, almost six. She said she liked playing make-believe, reading books, and running around. Then she started to talk about how she had been living in a shelter and how she missed her old bed. She talked about missing her mom because she hadn't seen her in “forever.” She said she cried a lot when she first got to the shelter, but that now she was used to it. As she talked, all the zest and liveliness drained out of her, and she seemed miserable. She said she wanted to be a normal girl with a real house. I tried to reassure her that she was normal and that she could make anywhere home, but she was convinced that a “real” home had to have a puppy, a tire swing, and an apple tree in the front yard.

I didn't know what else to do, so I pulled out my secret weapon: the Elmo pop-up book. A smile instantly appeared on her face, and she said Elmo was her favorite. We started reading, and her mood again became joyful and light. Although Natalia seemed to forget about our serious talk, I couldn't help but wonder how she could handle so much. She was only five but already had to face the cold, hard world. I don't know how I would cope with what she did, even at my age.

That's when it hit me. Natalia is strong. She can talk about her hardships, then snap back to her peppy self again. Her desire to be “normal” is understandable, but I wish I could have explained to her that she is perfect just the way she is. However, I couldn't find the words, and so we just kept playing with the pop-up book.

Before I knew it, our time was up, and we had already picked out the books she wanted to take with her. She asked why I looked so sad and if it was because I would miss her. A smile crept onto my face and I replied yes. She whispered back, “Don't worry, we can stay friends forever.”

My experience with Natalia has changed my perspective. I now realize how rough life can be, even for a five-year-old. But if Natalia can persevere, anyone can overcome hardships. She is a true inspiration, one that I'll never forget.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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