“When I got out of juvie at 19, learning to walk on the sidewalk was crazy, like, what’s the difference between the left and the right? What’s the difference between the crosswalk and the non-crosswalk?”

Elena grew up incarcerated. From the age of seven, she was in and out of jail until she was transferred to a juvenile facility at twelve, then at fourteen given a juvenile life sentence (juvenile detention until 18). “I was the youngest inmate with the longest sentence at the time,” she comments.

By the time Elena was released at 19, she had nowhere safe to go and had spent so much of her childhood locked up, she faced crippling anxiety just going to the grocery store or trying to ride a bus. She recalls, “They gave me a flip phone with minutes on it when I was released, but I didn’t know what it was,” so when the phone later rang on her way to Walmart, she freaked out, threw it into a bush, and took off running.


But Elena’s story starts much earlier than flip phones and juvenile incarceration. Of Bulgarian and Cuban heritage, she was adopted from an orphanage in Bulgaria at the age of two and brought to the United States. However, there were serious issues within her new home, and she began having behavioral problems, leading to a school fight that landed her in jail for the first time at the age of seven. She quickly found she preferred stretches in jail to home. “It was a safer environment for me than being at home. So, I’d purposely get into trouble so that I could go back to jail,” she says.

Between ten and twelve, Elena had also spent a couple of years in a behavioral health facility where she began struggling with suicide attempts and had her parents relinquish their parental rights. When she was finally released from the facility into foster care, she found herself placed in 24 different foster homes within six months. “They were moving me around every three days,” she recounts. “I was a flight risk, I had anger problems, I didn’t trust anybody. I just kept running.”

Once again finding herself in and out of juvenile detention, Elena received a juvenile life sentence shortly after she turned fourteen for an incident with a foster mom who happened to be a local judge. She recalls the moment the police showed up at the house, “They came and pointed rifles at me, laid me on the ground, put me in handcuffs, and put me on lockdown and maximum security.”

In and out of lockdown with a couple of escape attempts in the meantime, Elena was pulled up short when she encountered a counseling pastor at the facility, Greg, who took the time to get to know her. “He was the only counselor who had trust in me. He said, ‘I can see through all your walls and all the barriers that you put up.’”

Dango, Elena’s stuffed monkey

Greg didn’t give up and took the time to understand Elena’s past, using Dango, Elena’s stuffed monkey, as a safe communication tool. Dango was the one thing Elena kept with her always and had remained her anchor throughout life. Greg would direct his questions to Dango, and Elena would respond safely through the monkey. “He was my inner voice,” she says. This way, through Dango and Pastor Greg’s patience, she began opening up and communicating her feelings and experiences for the first time. Eventually, Elena no longer needed Dango’s help to talk.

From here, things began to shift. “It changed my life when I started talking and opening up. People thought I was this zero to a hundred, King Kong anger issues person, but having a consistent person who listened and took the time to understand me – I began to trust and wanted to work on my life,” she comments.

At 19, Elena was released from detention, but things went south quickly as she had nowhere safe to go and struggled with heavy depression, self-harm, homelessness, and continued suicide attempts. Rock bottom came in her early twenties, when she found herself at Roots Young Adult Shelter where she continued to struggle to trust people and tested the boundaries there. As a result, she ended up at the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC), watching older folks in their late years continue to struggle with substance use and death due to overdose and other causes. At one point, as she watched folks fight over chairs and where they were sitting, she thought to herself, “Oh yeah, this is not going to be me, I am not going to do this.”

From there, Elena worked hard to turn things around and applied for a university scholarship, which she won and used to study criminal justice and psychology, earning her BA. She also became active in sports, found employment, and started therapy. Helping her achieve some of these goals, Elena got plugged into programs like the Tile Project at YouthCare’s Orion Center and High-Fidelity Wraparound Program at the University District Youth Center (UDYC).

John and Elena
Elena at a recent visit with Johnny Ohta from her former UDYC Wraparound Team

UDYC’s High-Fidelity Wraparound Team was especially impactful for Elena during this time. She states, “When you have a group of people, your case managers, your friends and support, and everyone is there for you 100%, and it’s about you and what you want to achieve, I think that was the most beneficial thing for me. Everybody was on the same page, helping me to achieve my long and short term goals.”

“YouthCare gave me a support system, especially when I was homeless, and I didn’t trust people. I didn’t have people who were like, ‘We’ll fight for you, we’ll have your back.’ I thought I was going to be one of those older people, sitting around in a shelter for the rest of my life. No, YouthCare gave me support that I didn’t have, trust that I didn’t have, a community I didn’t have, a family I didn’t have.”

“YouthCare gave me support that I didn’t have, trust that I didn’t have, a community I didn’t have, a family I didn’t have.”


She reflects on her journey to redirect her life, “It was really hard being a female of color with a lot of background, and having people not trust me. For the longest time, I wanted to prove myself. Growing up, I used to hear, ‘You’re going to be in jail for the rest of your life, you’re going to have a murder charge, and you’re just going to be one of those people behind bars,’ and that was embedded in my head. I went through intensive therapy to learn that my behaviors were not an ok reason for my parents to do the things they did. For the longest time I was not ok with hearing that – I was like, no, it’s my fault I’m the way I am. But I no longer feel like I have to prove myself to anybody, let alone myself. Services like therapy and programs like YouthCare were able to help me understand certain aspects of my past, why it happened, and how to handle it.”

These days, Elena passionately works to help people experiencing similar struggles through programs like Street Soccer and pet training. She’s even created a binder that maps out every social service in the city so she can provide resource flyers to people she encounters. She also dotes on her five-year-old daughter who can charm the frown off you with her bright, precocious winks. Elena comments, “When I had her, I told myself I was going to give her a life she deserves and that I didn’t have. Everything we do is a learning experience.”

Elena and daughter

Threading the needle of growth through difficult experiences, Elena continues to push for better systems along with her own personal development. “I want to work with people and create change in the community,” she keenly says. Judging from the astonishing journey she’s made in her own life, there’s no doubt she is doing just that.