By Todd Martin

Special to the Daily Herald

Enduring unspeakable abuse and neglect for much of her childhood, Haley Olszewski accepted at a young age that homelessness and physical assault were a part of her life.

Telling a complex tale of an absent father and a drug-ravaged mother and the utter chaos that sent her from Conroe near Houston to Georgia to Chicago the 18-year-old betrayed no signs of trauma, only blossoming determination.

Olszewski won the Accepting the Challenge of Excellence Award, a $5,000 scholarship award from the Killeen Exchange Club. She went on to win the club's district honor that includes Texas and Louisiana. She is competing for a $10,000 national award.

Part of her nominating essay reads: I wanted a happy family. I was not asking for a trip to Disney World, I was just asking for someone to be at home when I needed help with homework or when I was at home sick. I wanted an occasional 'I love you.'"

She is the first in her family to complete high school and graduated in June with her Shoemaker High School classmates, the day after she received her ACE Award at a Dallas convention.

A troubled past

She sat down to tell her tale along with Shoemaker intervention counselor Carlene Miles.

Olszewski grew up with her mom and older brother in Conroe. Both were often into drugs and her mother brought a series of boyfriends into the house. In the midst of the chaos, the determined child stayed in school, made good grades and lied when asked about her family.

At age 11, she woke up to the sights and sounds of police officers. She learned that her stepdad, the first man to accept her as a daughter, hanged himself.

Her already troubled life deteriorated further. Her mother and brother sank deeper into drug use. The family lost their house and Child Protective Services moved her into a friend's house.

My stepfather dying made me decide at an early age of 11, this was not my way of life. I wanted to be a vet, a doctor, an astronaut and a teacher. Most of all, I wanted to be happy.

But the pain and abuse didn't stop.

As a teenager, she moved back in with her mother and her boyfriend hoping for the best. Instead, she was assaulted.

While living with an uncle as a ninth-grader, she learned her mother had been murdered.

"My mom had always fought for me," she said. "She knew that she and my brother could never make anything out of life."

Then Olszewski moved in with a boyfriend in Georgia. He cheated on her and she checked into a psychiatric hospital. After her stay, she was reunited with her biological father and moved to Chicago. At age 14, Olszewski became the victim of assault again, which led to a suicide attempt.

Rescued from despair

Then things started to change.

Olszewski got in touch with a friend back in Conroe who invited her to stay.

"They had showed me what a family was," she said of Scott and Anna Hatfield, who took her in.

That was in June 2010. Olszewski wanted to quit school, but the Hatfields convinced her to continue her education and gave her a stable life.

The family moved to Killeen and Olszewski enrolled at Shoemaker High School where she met Miles. Miles convinced her to write up some of her experiences for a scholarship nomination and got her to start sharing her story with other students.

"Back then, I didn't believe there was a God, because he wouldn't allow all that to happen," she said. "Giving up was not an option. I realized I could be more. I wanted to prove I could overcome. I didn't want to be another statistic. I wanted to show people I was different."

Olszewski completed the educational requirements to become a certified nursing assistant and a phlebotomist.

She has a scholarship to attend Central Texas College and she is pursuing a career in nursing.

"I want to help people. I think I can make a difference now," Olszewski said.

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