Stories of Change

Top: Scarlet with her Mom and brother in Bolivia, Second: Scarlet at her college graduation, Third: Scarlet at her daughter, Alisa's, graduation, Bottom: Scarlet with her son Aaron

Seeing the Invisible: Scarlet’s Story

When 12-year-old Scarlet Vargas was told by her parents that she would be going on vacation to visit her relatives in Houston, Texas, she had no idea that her life was about to change forever. She remembers that her parents bought her sparkly red shoes that she had always wanted and they put her on a plane all by herself where she saw her home country, Bolivia, get smaller and smaller until it only existed in her memories. 

When she arrived in Houston, Texas with her sparkly red shoes, there was no golden path leading her back home. Scarlet soon realized she was not on vacation. Her parents had sent her to live in the United States with relatives she had never met, to create a new life in a place she did not know. 

Scarlet remembers how challenging those first few months were as she navigated a new culture, new language and new school system with little to no support. “It was horrible,” she said. “When it was time for lunch, I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t know where the cafeteria was. I didn’t know if I had to pay or if it was free. I would just sit there and watch people eating because I was too scared and shy to ask. So that was shocking and depressing to me because there was nobody there to guide me.” Learning English felt impossible. Her school did not offer ESL classes so she had to learn in the same classes as non-Spanish speaking kids. Her sense of belonging had vanished and she felt invisible. Not even her sparkly red shoes could pull her out of this strange dream and bring her home. 

Despite this and the various barriers she faced, Scarlet graduated high school and did something that surprised many in her community: she decided to attend college. Explaining that she wanted to make the most out of a difficult situation she said, “I think I’m very resilient and that’s what kept me going. I also have a younger brother who was my motivation. I wanted to show him that if I can do this, he can also do it.” Scarlet attended school part-time while maintaining a full-time job to pay her college tuition. She endured each shift and essay with one goal in mind and eight years later, she walked the stage to receive her bachelor’s degree.  

With a bachelor’s degree under her belt, Scarlet went on to become a teacher then a CPS case manager, and eventually landed a job at CWS as a case manager. Here, Scarlet became the person she always needed but never had when she was a kid. She shared, “That’s why I do what I do now. When I work directly with the kids, I  tell them, ‘I’ve been in your shoes. I didn’t speak English. I didn’t have papers. But look at me now! It is possible, you can do this.’”

Scarlet now works as a case processing associate at CWS and is in the process of getting her master’s degree in social work. She has two kids and her oldest daughter just started her first year of college. She also shared that she recently got a text from her younger brother inviting her to his graduation for his master’s degree. 

We asked Scarlet what she wants people to know about individuals like her and the unaccompanied children she works with. She told us, “The kids that we serve are invisible in this country. Their existence is not acknowledged and they’re pretty much on their own.” Scarlet, once “invisible” herself, is now an empowering voice for children who like her, are alone in this new place that they are trying to make their home. She is using her own experience to shape the world into one that would have been kinder to her 35 years ago. 

To learn more about the great work Scarlet and her colleagues are doing in our Children’s Services Program, click here.