Marissa Dawson spent 8 years in Pennsylvania's foster care system.

Marissa Dawson has been in foster care for eight years and is in her fourth foster care placement. It’s a loving home, a place that fills her with the confidence to be herself and follow her dreams. But her journey to the place where she is now, both emotionally and physically, has been a long one.

She was removed from her first placement at the age of 12 at one in the morning when the family was determined to be unfit; at another she was attacked physically by a family member and had to be moved out. She clashed with her caseworkers and had trouble connecting with friends. But her life changed when she arrived with a loving family and had two life-changing experiences: She became a state finalist in the National American Miss pageant—“My confident side came out, and I’ve never doubted myself since,” she says.

In her senior year of high school she received the Outstanding Achievement Award for having the highest Grade Point Average improvement, recognition that felt especially rewarding “with all the foster homes and stresses I dealt with I honestly thought I wouldn’t make it, but I did—and it made me realize I can do whatever I want to do; I am the only one stopping me.”

She has shared her newfound confidence with younger kids through volunteer efforts. She has given her time to occupational therapy at Ohio Valley General Hospital, helping kids who were missing and arm, a leg or even sight adjust to their new bodies; and she’s worked with Special Olympics as well as a translator of sign language as well as teaching kids how to swim and not be afraid. “It’s the best feeling in the world to see a smile spread across a kid’s face because someone finally understands what he’s asking or saying and it’s also the best feeling to see that little girl who thought she'd never be a good swimmer win first after she learned how to swim.” Marissa’s dreams of simply having the confidence of being herself are coming true thanks to those who believed in her, and now she’s passing the gift of self-esteem along to the young people in her life.

Team(s) or Cohort(s)
2014 Outstanding Young Leaders