Shinelle Baker just finished her first semester at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore, but she is no ordinary college student. Growing up in extremely difficult circumstances in Trinidad and finding herself abandoned by her mother in the United States when she was 11, it was survival – not education – that had been Shinelle’s first focus while growing up.
Instability marked much of Shinelle’s childhood. Her parent’s relationship ended when she was very young; her father physically abused her mother, sending her to the hospital several times. Shinelle’s mother was unable to care for her daughter or her younger son so the children often lived with relatives, moving around frequently, and never knowing how long they would be in one place.
When she was seven years old, Shinelle moved in with her grandmother and father, who had just spent two years in jail in Canada. Shinelle lived there until she was 11 years old, witnessing her father physically abusing her younger brother, her grandmother, and his girlfriends. He was only verbally abusive to Shinelle. “In some ways I wish he had hit me instead of being verbally abusive,” she said. “It would have been easier to deal with.” Shinelle missed her mother and was deeply hurt that her mother had abandoned her.
Shinelle was left to raise herself. “I was outspoken and could defend myself. That’s how I survived,” she said. She was very competitive and worked hard, but did not do well in school.
At 11, Shinelle’s mother came back into her life and took Shinelle and her brother to the United States to visit Shinelle’s aunts. “I loved my mom and I wanted to spend my life with her. I thought this was going to be it, that we would be together,” Shinelle said. They moved from house to house; after a few months, Shinelle’s mother sent her brother back to Trinidad. Within six months of arriving, Shinelle’s mother also went back to Trinidad for what she said was a four-week visit. She never returned.
After her mother left, Shinelle stayed with an aunt in Brooklyn for a year. She was extremely depressed after being abandoned by her mother again; she started hanging around with the “wrong crowd” at her public school and her life began to go “downhill.” “I wanted so badly to have a parent who was mine,” Shinelle said. “I couldn’t understand how my parents could be ok just leaving me.” She was extremely unhappy at home and at school.
Another of Shinelle’s aunts worked as a nanny for a family on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts and invited Shinelle to stay with her for a time over the summer to get out of the city. Shinelle enjoyed it very much and got along well with the family, which included two young girls. Her aunt was going to quit her job and move to Brooklyn to care for Shinelle, but her employers had become very fond of Shinelle and suggested that Shinelle stay for the rest of the summer. When it was time to go back to school, the family asked Shinelle if she wanted to stay. By this time, Shinelle had become very close to them. “They became my parents, and I was like their daughter,” Shinelle said. “Their daughters are my sisters, no question. They are my family.”
They offered to help her find a good school in the area. The family helped enroll her in a boarding school, which Shinelle found very hard at first. She adjusted, but her grades were still poor. Despite this, the family offered to help her go again for a second year. By her 3rd year, she had a scholarship that covered 80 percent of her school costs and was doing very well academically and as an athlete. “I started to see life differently,” she said. She began talking to a counselor about her parents and her difficult life.
Shinelle’s aunt became her legal guardian after her parents signed statements that they had not supported her for years and that they were unwilling to support her in the future. The family got in touch with KIND Boston to help Shinelle with her immigration status. KIND matched Shinelle with a committed pro bono attorney at Weil Gotshal, Joseph F. Bernardi, Jr.
Joe helped Shinelle gain her green card. “Joe was the most amazing lawyer,” Shinelle said. “Joe and KIND are in my heart. If not for them, I thought I was dead – there would be no more to my life back in Trinidad.”
Shinelle was eager to attend college. A few months after she received her green card, Shinelle learned that she earned a full scholarship to Loyola in Baltimore. “I was so excited,” Shinelle said. “I couldn’t wait to do it all!”
Joe said that the case was extremely inspiring. “It is very different from my usual work – corporate and transactional work – and very hands-on. The best part for me was seeing how big an impact the decision had on Shinelle personally. She was ecstatic and in tears. This is not something I encounter every day. Shinelle was incredibly appreciative and I got a big long thank you note from her.”
“It was the first time I had worked on a case like this and I had no knowledge of the process,” Joe continued. “KIND’s pro bono coordinator was wonderfully helpful. I would tell other lawyers not to let inexperience hold you back.”
Shinelle is enjoying college life. “Now that I’m in college I often sit and think to myself, ‘is this real?’ I am extremely thankful to be attending college. Looking back at my life in Trinidad, I never thought my life would be where it is today,” Shinelle said. “I enjoyed my first semester at Loyola University Maryland and am taking advantage of all the opportunities I have. I can’t wait to be the first in my birth family to graduate from college. I’m excited to see where the next chapter of my life will go. I think I want to become a lawyer — maybe an immigration lawyer!”