Withelma T Ortiz

Withelma T Ortiz

I Am Resilient

A “little girl lost, confused, and at a dead end” is how Withelma “T” Ortiz Pettigrew describes herself before coming to Civicorps in 2007. Growing up in the foster care system, she was transferred between homes over 14 times throughout her childhood. When she spent her 17th birthday in Juvenile Hall, she realized that she needed to change the trajectory of her life.

“I went from all of that, to working in steel-toed boots and a hard hat. I had never even seen nature before Civicorps. Here I am in Yosemite, scared of spiders and camping outside, and I’m the only girl in the group climbing a huge waterfall.”

Years later, T would climb Huayna Picchu in Peru by herself – a demanding hike gaining 9,000 feet of elevation. She attributed this new sense of adventure to her experience at Civicorps.

“Before Civicorps, I was a little girl who thought I couldn’t do anything, couldn’t be anything, and then I came into an environment that understood young people who are what society considers ‘problem children’ and they accepted me and pushed me. So many times I was like ‘I can’t do this’ and my supervisors would be like ‘Yes you can, you’re stronger than this.’”

Civicorps staff helped connect T with opportunities like a Hip Hop Literacy program at Ohio State University where she began to picture college as a real possibility for herself.

“Civicorps was the first place where I got to see what I was capable of and it’s the first place where I got to develop my self-esteem and have exposure to activities that helped build on who I was as a person. It just made me hungrier for more of that.”

T is now a 4.0 college student majoring in Strategic Communications at Morgan State University in Baltimore. She is also a social justice advocate who speaks on behalf of foster youth and victims of sex trafficking. T has testified in front of Congress and she continues to speak on panels across the US related to these issues.

Named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People behind President Barack Obama, and one of Glamour Magazine’s 2011 Women of the Year, T has spent the last decade serving as a voice for so many who have had theirs silenced.

“Embrace everything you learn here,” T says to current youth at Civicorps, We all have failures and downfalls but realize that it’s not how you fall, but how you pick yourself up and keep going that is most important.”