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Army officer-in-training says high school JROTC was key in overcoming abuse, homelessness

Reserve Officer Training Corps Cadet Christina Meredith performs maintenance checks on a secure internet router used by U.S. Army signal units during her monthly unit training assembly in Jacksonville, Fla., on Feb. 11, 2018.

MICHAEL BALTZ/U.S. ARMY

By COLLEEN JONES | The St. Augustine Record | Published: April 1, 2019

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. (Tribune News Service) —There was a time when Christina Meredith slept in her two-door Chevy Cavalier every night for more than a year.

Even in her homelessness, Meredith always had her eye on the future.

She scrawled down a list of goals: become an officer in the military, write a book, start an organization to help foster care children.

Meredith, now 32, is an active member of the U.S. Army, student at the University of North Florida and now an author. She also recently launched a nonproft.

As one of eight children in a family rampant with abuse and neglect, Meredith was bounced from relative to relative until eventually being placed in St. Johns County Foster Care in her teens. But when she aged out of that system at 18, she didn't know where to turn. Still in school, she started living out of her car and using public beach showers — all while holding down a couple of jobs and continuing to participate in the Junior Reserve Officers Training program at Allen D. Nease High School.

Instead of feeling held back by the physical and psychological abuse of a mother who she says called her "laundry lady," "stupid" and worse, Meredith said the experience emboldened her, with help from some very tough but loving instructors.

"This program saved my life," Meredith told students in a JROTC classroom at Nease High School where she spoke Thursday as part of a national book tour for her newly released memoir "CinderGirl." "I credit all my success to this program, because it gave me the structure, purpose and camaraderie."

Even among so many other competitive JROTC students, it was always obvious to instructor Duane Hanson, a former Marine Corps drill instructor,  that Meredith stood out when she attended the school.

"She was a real go-getter — I mean, in everything she did," Hanson said of Meredith who graduated from Nease in 2005.

In "CinderGirl" (Zondervan, $9.99), Meredith describes what it was like to rise above her difficult childhood.

The first step toward that independence was gaining custody of her little sister to protect the girl from any of the stresses she had endured. She moved to California where she tended bar to make a living. At some point, she caught the eye of a pageant recruiter and in 2013, and the self-described tomboy was crowned Ms. California.

But she never forgot plans to enlist in the military. Meredith currently serves in the U.S. Army's Reserve Officer Training Corps while finishing her major in political science with a focus on international affairs at UNF. After graduating in the fall, she will be officially commissioned as a branching signal intelligence officer.

Over the years, Meredith has become an advocate for changes to the foster care system, speaking out on behalf of abused children all over the country. And she is in the process of beginning a foundation in her name so youth who are survivors of abuse get the therapeutic resources they need to lead healthy, independent adult lives.

In her presentation last week, Meredith was asked by one of the students if there was anything she still wanted to achieve?

Running for public office, she said, could be an opportunity to effect even more change.

Another student asked Meredith what was her favorite quote?

Without missing a beat, Meredith said it was by Winston Churchill: "Never, never, never give up."

©2019 The St. Augustine Record, Fla.
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