Editor's note: Nation Ford High School, which is in its second year, will soon say goodbye to its first graduating class. In the weeks leading up to graduation, we will share stories from students who persevered despite obstacles that could have stood between them and a high school diploma.
Part one of a series
Jenna Williams can't remember the abuse, the inappropriate touches that came her way when she was just a toddler.
But the Nation Ford High School senior who is set to graduate next month isn't a victim.
She's a survivor. However, Williams sees it another way.
"I don't see myself as a survivor," the 19-year-old Fort Mill teen said. "I see myself as someone who rose above my circumstances. People make choices, and I choose to be happy."
Accepting happiness over self-hatred and some near defeats took time to nurture.
"She's overcome a lot," Nation Ford guidance counselor Charles Drakeford said. "She's an outstanding young lady. A lot of students in her situation would have easily given up, but she fought through."
When Williams was 4, her innocence was stolen, but she doesn't remember the initial sexual abuse.
"I was very confused," Williams said. "I didn't understand what was going on. I felt very dirty, just worthless and used. I felt like I wasn't even a person."
And the story gets worse because, she said, the abuse was done at the hands of the one person who was always suppose to look out for her.
"He was supposed to be my protector," Williams said about her biological father. Instead, "he took everything that was precious to a girl away. You're not supposed to have those kinds of things happen between a father and a daughter."
As a mere toddler, Williams didn't know how to speak of the abuse. But she acted out her pain, making gestures a toddler shouldn't know. When questioned by her mother, Lisa Williams, Jenna said, "That's what daddy lets me do."
That statement and a subsequent probe by authorities led to her father's arrest.
Authorities charged the then Lancaster man with committing or attempting a lewd act upon a child, according to the York County 16th Circuit public index search. That index shows a judge handed down a seven-year prison sentence suspended on two years with three years probation.
"It ended the abuse," Jenna Williams said of her father's arrest and prison sentence. "But it didn't end how it changed how I viewed things. I didn't view things the way people do because of that."
Williams sought counseling, buried her secret and clung to her mother, who later remarried.
"Her middle school years were very tough for her step dad and I," Lisa said of Alan Williams, who refused to give up on Jenna.
"My angel," Jenna said of Alan Williams. "He made me trust men again. He brought a different light to what a daddy is supposed to be. He took me on father-daughter dates. He told me pretty much daily [that] I was a princess."
But it would take time for Jenna to absorb that she was worthy of Williams' praise. By the time she hit middle school, she came face to face with the past she tried to hide.
"I finally realized [that] I hurt," she said with a wisdom that surpassed her age. "I had been covering it up. I thought I was immune to it."
But she wasn't quite ready to face the inevitable. So she rebelled.
"I did everything I could to hurt myself because I thought it (the abuse) was my fault," she said she tried during her middle school years. "I hated myself. I felt like I wasn't worth anything. I'd been destroyed. There was no need to get back up."
The downward spiral continued for nearly two years before Williams had an epiphany.
"I stepped out of my shell," she said with a wide smile and bright eyes. "In the 10th grade, I decided to do something about my anger and everything that I'd been compressing. I joined sports teams and activities, things that involved other people besides my family because I clung to my mommy. I didn't trust anyone else."
She ran cross county, joined the school's cheerleading squad and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
"I used to let people walk all over me and took it because I didn't think I deserved better," she said. "After I joined sports, I realized I had a lot more self-worth."
Along the way, her grades picked up some much so that she's ranked 145 out of 260 senior students. But more than that, Williams' attitude changed.
"I used to be an angry thing, but now I try to shine on people who normally wouldn't see any happiness in their day," she said.
And Williams learned to trust.
"I have a boyfriend," she said of her boyfriend of nearly two years. "The first thing I told him when we went out is 'if you ever try to hurt me, hit me or cheat on me, I will fight back.'"
So the sweet girl and her newfound innocence is back, and she's making plans to go to York Technical College after graduation come June 5. And she won't ever be a victim again.
"I'm still in the race," she said. "I can still come out on top."