Child abuse survivor now helps kids caught in welfare system
Clarissa Nielsen now works with children and families dealing with abuse or neglect.
The Nielsens pose for a family picture.
As she reflects on almost 25 years in broadcasting, people often ask Kristie VerMulm about special interviews that come to mind.
While she has met some amazing people along the way and had the great privilege of telling their stories, she said one particular interview in 2008 left a lasting impression.
She caught up with Clarissa Nielsen five years later, to find out that she has not only survived, but thrived. She's an inspiration to others.
With two beautiful young girls, Clarissa Nielsen is focused on her family. She's making sure they're safe, healthy and happy. Clarissa wants the childhood of her daughters, to be different than hers.
That's because much of Clarissa's childhood was spent in uncertainty and fear.
"Basically, my mom left when I was a baby and she never came back," she said.
And said life with her father was difficult. "Things were not good. They were not safe for me," Nielsen said.
At age 13, Clarissa became a foster child. She bounced from home to home, ten in Iowa before she aged out of the system. At 18 years old she was on her own.
"I don't feel like what happened to me when I was growing up, I don't feel like that was a barrier. I feel like that truly made me stronger."
She found strength from within and support from those around her.
"I had a few good case workers, a lot of great moms, I'm not going to lie, that always gave me that hope and I chose to believe it. And, I really took control and my grades were up. And, I finally just believed in myself and felt like I wasn't worthless or a foster kid," said Nielsen.
We caught up with a then 19-year old Clarissa at Dordt College. She graduated with a double major in Criminal Justice and Social Work in just three years.
She brought her story to Capitol Hill. On the floor of the United States Senate she urged lawmakers to do more to help foster kids like her.
And, as if life wasn't challenging enough at that time, Clarissa did it while battling cancer.
"Cancer was the scariest," she said.
Medulloblastoma, a very rare form of brain cancer in adults, created a golf ball sized tumor. Clarissa underwent surgery and radiation. Doctors also put in a pacemaker for her heart.
"Cancer is something I couldn't control, and I knew that if anything was going to kill me, it would be that," said Clarissa. "When they told me I had cancer and didn't have long to live and there's nothing they could do. I was all this work for nothing!"
What cancer and abuse couldn't do though, is take away her positive attitude. Cancer free for six years she now works with hundreds of abused and neglected kids in Nebraska's Health and Human Services system, as well as those going through Juvenile Courts.
Clarissa said, "As soon as you tell them well I was right where you were and look where I am now, then it's a huge turn of tables. You start getting respect, they ask a lot more questions about how do you make it in life? How do you go to college? What do you do?"
A ray of hope, inspiring young people to find their own voice.
"In most ways I feel like I'm the Child's warrior," she said. "You have control over your destiny, your future. Giving them that control of knowing that it is their control. That's a huge thing. But that's where my life changed, when I knew I had a say. I had control of what was going to happen to me."
Clarissa believes helping young people through troubled times is truly satisfying. She's a motivational speaker and is even writing a book. But, she considers being a wife and mother her most rewarding roles.
"I have a lot of love to give them and that is the best quality I have. I can love them forever and ever, and hold them as long as they let me hold them," she said.
It's her forever family. The one she dreamed of growing up and the one she doesn't take for granted.
"Since I was a little girl I wanted to be a mom. Since I was a teenager I wanted to make a difference in the world and still be a mom. So I feel I've gotten everything I've dreamed of."
Clarissa has since reconciled with her father.
As far as this 25-year old's future, Clarissa isn't ruling out the possibility of politics. However, she working now to have a bigger role and a bigger voice for kids in need.
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