Christina Burkenroad once wore a brilliant disguise. On the outside: An athletic, cool surfer-girl from San Diego. On the inside: A scared and wounded child.
Her mind was a mess with dark themes of death, homelessness, depression, drugs and suicidal thoughts. To escape, she'd go catch a wave or bounce a soccer ball and play pretend, trying to mask her pain. She felt alone in her conflicted universe, thinking no one cared if she lived or died.
"Nobody knew," she said of her life then. "Nobody knew at all. That's not really something to flaunt. ... But you really don't know someone's story until you're curious about it and you ask."
Ask her today, and Burkenroad will give you open, honest and often heart-breaking answers. She shares those dark chapters because the truth reveals everything. It completes her, in a good way, and makes her stronger.
"I think it's an amazing opportunity to share and inspire," she said.
The bad stuff in her life provides context for the good stuff and her remarkable resiliency. Burkenroad, a few weeks shy of 23, is a forward with the Orlando Pride, moving to Central Florida after becoming the No. 15 overall pick in the 2016 National Women's Soccer League college draft.
Her purple uniform is her badge of honor and a means to help reach out to others who have lost their way and show them a way out.
After all, she has the perfect road map.
• • •
Burkenroad would have flippantly dismissed such an inspirational scenario a few years ago. She couldn't see past tomorrow through a drug-induced haze. She slept in cars and cheap hotels. She stole stuff to eat junk food at McDonald's or Jack in the Box.
She didn't care back then. She felt isolated, sorry for herself. And you couldn't blame her.
Her life started unraveling at 4 years old, when the ambulance came for her mother, Elizabeth. She remembers the details vividly. Her dad and her mom tucking her into bed. Waking up to the sound of a siren. Looking out the window and seeing the ambulance pull into their driveway. Knowing it was coming for her mom. Seeing her mom rushed out of the house on a gurney.
"That was it," she said. Her mom would eventually die, ravaged by ALS.
Her dad kept things together for awhile for Christina and her two older brothers. He was a successful leasing manager for an auto dealership in San Diego. But slowly, he unraveled — emotionally and then financially. The family moved to North Carolina to live with relatives when Christina was 7, but the family moved back to San Diego by the time Christina was in high school.
Christina got the worst of it. Her brothers had moved away. It was just her and her dad. Eventually, it was just Christina and her dad, homeless.
"He took care of me for as long as he could," Christina said. "And with something as traumatic as that, anyone would be in a downward spiral. We went through a financial strain, we did whatever we could to have shelter and put a roof over our heads."
Sometimes, the roof was the inside of her father's Land Rover. Sometimes, a hotel room. Sometimes, just under a tree in a park.
Despite the chaos, Christina was a rising soccer star at Mission Bay High. Her coach, Jorge Palacios, saw that great potential. But he didn't see all of the other stuff going on: Christina skipping school every day just to go to the beach and surf. Drinking all the time. Stealing stuff — clothes, bikes, whatever she could nab — to buy fast food. Her soccer team was her only family, but it wasn't enough.
"I was at the lowest point of my life," she said.
"I felt like I didn't want to be on this earth anymore."
• • •
She finally found the courage to ask for help, but it was all piecemeal. She moved in with an aunt, in a closet-sized room with a mattress, but things didn't work out there. She moved in with a friend's family for a while, but their home life was chaotic as well. Christina then moved in with the Haerr family.
Stacey Haerr had developed a strong motherly connection with Christina over the years, from the time Christina arrived as a newbie in the first grade. Haerr was in the classroom that day, and still remembers Christina bawling when her father walked in with his daughter in his arms.
Haerr's daughter and Christina became best friends, and stayed connected throughout the years.
Haerr tried to cobble together a normal life for Christina, buying her shoes and a dress for prom. She had her own real bedroom for the first time in her life. She was surrounded by love.
Even so, dark thoughts persisted. Her grades were a mess. She still felt disconnected.
And potential for college seemed a bleak as she completed high school. But in a fortuitous twist, her club coach, Brian McManus, used his connections with Cal-State Fullerton women's soccer coach Demian Brown to lobby for Christina. Palacios put the squeeze on as well, telling Brown: "Look, man, if you do not offer her scholarship she will play somewhere else and destroy you guys twice a year."
It worked. Just like that, Christina visited the campus. Within days, she had an offer for a full-ride scholarship.
The village saved Christina Burkenroad. Haerr, Palacios, family friend Sally Custer and others, who supported her. Strangers who donated money once her story went viral in the San Diego community through a series of newspaper articles. Community moms who started a college fund for her.
"That was one of the first times I felt loved, and I felt important," she said. "It was amazing."
They were giving her what she always needed:
"She understands the gift of family," Haerr said.
• • •
Burkenroad is at a good place now. Haerr is her other mom, not bound by blood but by love. She remains in contact with her father, trying to remain supportive as he continues to struggle.
And she has already seen playing time with the Pride, subbing in during Orlando's 1-0 victory against the Houston Dash on May 20.
"It happened really fast so I didn't have time to be emotional about it but there was one point in the game when I kinda looked around and I really just thought to myself, 'I'm here right now. Embrace every minute.' "
But there's also a paying-it-forward aspect to her story that she wants to share. She has joined Phil and Kay Rawlins, high-profile executives with the Orlando City Soccer Club and the Pride, on a local task force targeting youth homelessness.
"I see my role as someone who has had a lot of adversity and has definitely received the help to get out of it through a huge support system, and by believing in myself and learning so much," she said. "I just want to share that with the world. Believing in yourself, having a purpose, having a goal is the ultimate motivation."
Christina Burkenroad looks into your eyes. She is confident, content, compassionate. There are no more disguises.
— Orlando Sentinel (TCA)