Wrestler raises awareness with children's foundation

Beth Bragg

Melissa Apodaca is trying to make the Olympic wrestling team, but even as she fights for a chance to represent her country, Apodaca's life isn't just about the red, white and blue. It's also about the blue, purple and teal.

Those are the colors of the Change Ribbon, the symbol of an awareness-raising foundation Apodaca created on her 21st birthday. The colors represent abuse, rape and poverty.

Apodaca, now 22, said she was neglected and abused as a child by her mostly absentee mother. She found refuge in sports and a surrogate family at Chugiak High School, and today calls former Chugiak counselor Rachel Smith "mom." Apodaca moved in with Ben and Rachel Smith during her sophomore year at Chugiak.

After graduating, Apodaca headed to Northern Michigan, which has a wrestling training center. Injuries sidelined her for about two years, and it was while she was rehabbing that she decided to celebrate her 21st birthday with the creation of the Change Ribbon.

"I was on crutches and there wasn't much I could do,'' she said in a phone interview. "A lot of people go out and party on their 21st birthday. They go out and get drunk. I thought it would be great to send a message on my 21st birthday."

She wrote a paper about childhood adversities and made copies of it. She made 21 ribbons. Then she gave a paper and a ribbon to 21 people she thought might be in position to make a difference in a child's life the way the Smiths did in hers.

"A lot of things get overlooked,'' Apodaca said. "There's so many signs of kids getting abused, but a lot of people don't pay attention. They just think the kid is shy or socially awkward.''

As the London Olympics approach and Apodaca trains for a spot on the U.S. women's wrestling team, her story is being told by the media. Apocada knows she might upset her biological mom by drawing attention to the struggles of her childhood.

"In a way it's calling someone out for their mistakes'' said Apodaca, who hasn't heard from her mother since she was about 14. "I feel that by doing this, by making a big awareness about it, it is slightly heartbreaking, because I know my real mom's gonna see it, and it probably will hurt her a little bit.

"Maybe she doesn't always realize all the things she's done is wrong. But if anybody can do something like that to a child, I don't care about their feelings. Even though she is my bio mom, I've never seen her as a mother. I never heard her say 'I love you.' Rachel, she is my real mom.

"I think about it and it hurts a little. Wrestling is one of the things in life that keeps me sane. The life I've had has brought a lot of dark emotions into play, and I know I am going to have to deal with those when I'm done wrestling. God says you have to forgive people to be forgiven, and one of the things I'm struggling with right now is forgiving bad things that people have done to kids.

"I have a lot of rage. Maybe that's why I'm a good wrestler."

Reach Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn.com or 257-4335.

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