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Diagnosed with dyslexia at age 6. Lost her mother to cancer and spent three months in foster care at 12. Became homeless at age 13. Lost her father to cancer at 21. Graduated from college at 22. This was all I knew about Ericka Magee when her graduation Facebook post went viral last month–a list of heartbreaking life circumstances that would give almost anyone reason to pick the character of victim in their life. But not Ericka.
After interviewing the recent college graduate, who majored in social work, it’s clear she’s rewriting her story; she’s now playing the lead role of fighter/lover/giver. Just years ago, Ericka described herself as a hurt, torn, and empty child, and now, at just 22, she’s transformed into a positive force, changing the world one good deed at a time. What I thought would be an interesting story of persistence, turned into much more; Ericka is serving up some serious knowledge on what it means to heal, hope, and love, a little bundle of insight even Queen Oprah herself would be awed by.
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**PS: If you’re dealing with anything similar to what Ericka went through, scroll to the bottom. She has a special message for you.**
On Virality and Sharing Her Story
Q: When did you realize your post to your personal page was on the verge of going viral? How did it unfold?
A: I realized my post was on the verge of going viral about 6 hours after I posted it. I literally made the post for my family and friends and logged off of Facebook because I don’t really get on there. I woke up later that evening to a bunch of texts saying I was famous. My best friends and I were out to eat, and they showed me from their phones because I didn’t believe it. We were literally sitting in Texas Roadhouse that evening, watching my notifications flicker right in front of our eyes.
Q: Why do you think sharing our truths and stories is important?
A: Although I was very vulnerable with my story, I honestly don’t know how much I would have shared if I knew it would have gone viral. Nevertheless, I think it is important to share our own personal truths and stories because you never know whom it may touch. There were people from all over the world writing me, thanking me for sharing my story because they have gone through similar things or know someone who has, and that is what captured my heart. I believe that sharing your truths and stories allows people to know that they are not alone.
On Her Present and Future
Q: What have you been up to since you graduated school?
A: Since I have graduated I have been preparing for my next step, which is going to Grad school. I start June 28th at Wayne State University. So, I’ve been slowly packing up my apartment and moving into the home my father left for my brother and me and mentally preparing myself for that next step. I have also received a job at Cliff Bell’s Jazz Restaurant in Downtown Detroit, which I start on the 27th of this month. So, I have just been trying to embrace all the changes that are happening all at once.
Q: What are you most proud of?
A: I know everyone wants me to say that I am most proud of beating the odds and graduating… but, truthfully, I am most proud of learning to love others. I have learned to forgive those that have done me wrong, I have learned to love people that have been in my life for years, and people that I have just met. I have learned to be completely open and loving, and that’s something that did not come naturally to me. I missed that step growing up. See, my parents were amazing, hardworking, dedicated parents, but they themselves did not know how to love. They were providers, and they’d often let me know that we were not friends, and I didn’t have to like them, but I would be taken care of. It wasn’t until the end of my sophomore year of college that I felt as if I was gaining a friendship with my father. So, learning to genuinely love others, with no regrets, even if I get hurt in the end- learning to let others take what they need (as far as love, sympathy, compassion, friendship) and leave the rest (walk away if they need to), that’s my biggest accomplishment. Maybe one day I’ll realize that I’m too much, or I love too much, but after years of hurt and hatred, I’m content with this.
Q: What’s your ultimate dream job?
A: My ultimate dream job…. I don’t think there’s a title for it. I have a true passion for extending all my help, love, and compassion to other to contribute to the betterment of their life. In a perfect world, I’d literally spend every day, feeding others, clothing others, paying others bills… Being a Social Worker was the closest thing I could get to that lol.
Q: What’s something that gives you pure joy?
A: Something that gives me pure joy is volunteering. My favorite place in Mount Pleasant since I’ve been attending Central Michigan is the Isabella County Soup Kitchen. I am always at peace when I am there.
On Loss and Hope
Q: What was your favorite thing about your dad? Your mom?
A: My favorite thing about my father was that he was such a hard working, kindhearted man. He came to Detroit from Mississippi at 21 and worked at Ford full time while going to school. By the time I was in the picture, although he and my mother were not together, he’d come around from time to time, fix her car for free, do anything she needed around the house, and everything. He owned his own car shop as well. When he took me in, he retired and took care of me full time. He was a mom and a dad, literally. He would work on a car outside the house all day, pick me up from school, scrub his hands until they were clean, and cook for hours. He never missed a beat, and I loved that about him.
My favorite thing about my mom was that she was so strong. Besides my kindergarten graduation, I never saw her cry. No matter the financial, personal, or other problems, I never saw her crack. I notice so much of that in me now, and I admired that back then.
Q: As someone who has had a parent pass at a young age, while I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, I think it’s given me a special gift of empathy. Do you experience that as well? Or was there something positive that came out of losing a parent so young?
A: I admire you for gaining empathy after losing a parent at a young age. I was the complete opposite. I was very hurt, torn, and empty inside which caused me to hate everyone around me. For years, I was such a negative person because I did not know how to direct my feelings and emotions. It honestly wasn’t until college when I met my best friend Jeree Spicer that I learned to open up about things I was dealing with. Then, I began to be more of a positive person and extend my love and compassion to others. Recently losing my father has had a completely different affect on me though. Through my father’s death, I have gained a greater sense of loving others. I think it’s because I am older so I understand more, and I have already been through it.
Q: I’m a huge Oprah fan. She has the belief that in a storm or hard time you have two choices: hope or despair. What’s your definition of hope? And how has it helped you through tough times?
A: Man, I am so obsessed with Oprah. I wish I was her adopted child lol. Well, I love that you brought up hope because my favorite bible verse is “Hope is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen” – Hebrews 11:1. I’m not one to throw religion or spiritually in anyone’s face, but I will say that when you have nothing else, hope will get you through. Hope is believing that you’ll be okay after you’ve cried yourself to sleep for the past 4 nights, and you haven’t had a happy day in months. Hope is knowing that troubles don’t last forever, and if you put through all the troubles, you’ll make it. For me, hope was all I had most of the time, and I’m glad I had it.
Q: If you could tell someone who is in the process of grieving one thing, what would it be?
A: If I could tell someone who is in the process of grieving one thing, I would tell them not to hold it in. If you have to cry, cry. If you have to scream, scream. If you have to punch a wall, do it! Talk to someone about how you feel, and indulge in something you love to do to take your mind off of things from time to time. Whatever you do, don’t give up.
Q: To the people who haven’t experienced a loss, what’s the best way for them to react to someone who has experienced it? Is there something you like to hear? Or hate to hear?
A: To people that haven’t experienced a loss, my advice would be, “be there.” Be there physically. Even if you just sit in the room with them all day and don’t say a word, be there. I can’t tell you the number of family and friends that called or texted me when my father passed away, I can’t even tell you their names, but I can tell you every single person that came to visit me, to check on me, that came to the wake or the funeral. Those people left a lasting impression on me. For me, I hated to hear “it’s going to be okay,” my response was always “yea, for a person who has both parents, that’s easy to say” (I never said that out loud by the way), but no one wants to hear how “okay” it’s going to be. Instead, tell them you love them and leave it at that. Be there physically, let them cry on you if need be, and that’s it.
On Dyslexia and Homelessness
Q: To all those children who are currently homeless, what’s one thing you would say to them?
A: To the children that are currently homeless, I would say that your situation today does not have to be your situation tomorrow. So, for me, my father lost his home and we lived in a car and with family until he got back on his feet. From some, I know it may not be that easy, but I would say that asking for help goes a long way. My heart goes out to everyone that is homeless because it is a situation that hinders a person from a lot of things.
Q: As a fellow dyslexic, I’m curious if you’ve ever had someone tell you you can’t? How do you react when someone says you can’t?
A: Being dyslexic, I have had a ton of people tell me I can’t. I was told I couldn’t read back in 5th grade, and I still don’t read out loud to this very day lol. But, honestly, having someone tell me I can’t is one of the most powerful things, in my opinion. That is always my motivation to push harder, not even just to prove to them that I can but also to prove to myself. I believe that success is the biggest revenge, so I don’t usually say much except “watch me” when people say I can’t.
Q: I find that my dyslexia helps me as a storyteller. I’ll never be a great speller, but my brain’s wired for storytelling. What strength/secret power has dyslexia given you?
A: With my dyslexia, I think… hmm.. I never really thought about it before. I think I pay attention to detail a lot more. Like little details, like what hand someone writes with or what color they wear the most. I also remember things in pictures/videos kind of, so if I’m taking a test, I can literally remember when I wrote that down when I was taking notes, and replay it in my head. I’m not sure if that’s the dyslexia or not, but I think it’s pretty cool.
Q: What’s one thing you wish people understood about dyslexia?
A: I wish people would understand that people that are dyslexic are regular people. We may not be able to spell without using Grammarly or spell check, we may stumble over some words, or say a different word in place of another word (which I do often), and some of us may struggle more than others, but we are not “dumb”. People with dyslexia are some of the smartest, creative, people I know, and it’s not just because I am one of them lol.
Q: What makes a good friend?
A: I believe a good friend is someone that sticks with you through everything. A friend is someone that learns to understand the meaning behind your actions, and even if they don’t always agree with those actions, they support you. I believe a friend supports you and loves you when you don’t even have the strength to love yourself.
Q: Who can you always lean on?
A: My brother is someone I can always lean on. Although we did not grow up together, over the past 10 years of living together once he moved in with my father and I, we have gotten closer, and, with my father gone, he has taken on the role of making sure I am okay. I literally can’t even cough without him jumping up, looking for medicine and soup, and trying to give me an inhaler. He’s my favorite person in the entire world.
Q: Who’s your biggest inspiration?
A: My greatest inspiration was, and still is, my father, he was an amazing man. A preacher, a scholar, a businessman, a friend to many (we had to have two funerals to accommodate everyone), a mechanic, and a dad. He was a person of many trades, and he made it look easy.
Q: What’s your dream life 20 years from now? Job? Dog? City?
20 years from now ill be…. About 43 since I’m turning 23 soon… I’d hope to have my nonprofit organization for children that max out of the foster care system well established. Somehow I’m hoping to be rich and able to give money to disadvantaged populations in and around Detroit, Flint, Saginaw, and even in Chicago, and other areas. Recently, I have been told that I should work to become something like an inspirational speaker or something, which I really like the idea of, so I will be working on that, which hopefully will put me in a place to share my story with more people and in return inspire others. I think I may write a book or something as well. I honestly do not want to work a 9-5 job, I’d literally work 24 hours a day to give back to my community, but a 9-5 at an actual job, that’s not my dream life. Although, if I had to choose to work anywhere in the world, I’d choose to work at Operation Break Through in Kansas City, Missouri as a Behavioral Therapist for children that have experienced many Adverse Childhood Experiences at a young age. I volunteered there on an Alternative Break once, and I fell in love. I do hope to be married to an amazing person that shares that same passions and desires as I do, and loves to travel – if I could travel and eat different food from all over the world, I would. As far as pets, I really hope my doggie will still be around. But if not, I want another doggie just like him, like identical – maybe a different color. Lastly, I’m not really sure where I’d like to live, but Detroit is fine with me.
A message from Ericka to you:
A message to anyone dealing with anything similar to what I’ve been through or something completely different- you write your own story. No matter what you’re going through, your thoughts, your actions, how YOU handle things, that’s what will matter. I believe that you can go through anything and get through it if you’re strong enough to believe that as well. If you’ve never heard is before, I BELIEVE IN YOU!
Feature Image Source: Ericka Magee