Once haunted by suicidal thoughts and a family fractured by drug-addiction and neglect, 18-year-old Haley Martella says she has found a purpose providing her 19-month-old daughter Aiyana the life she never had.
This spring, Martella will graduate from Hope Academy and Holmen High School and pursue a vocational degree in welding at Western Technical College.
Her persistence in overcoming overwhelming adversity has earned her this year’s La Crosse Tribune Extra Effort Award for Holmen High School.
“The difference from when I first met her and today is completely different,” said Martella’s social worker, Dianna Range.
A native of Bakersfield, Calif., Martella was born into a family ravaged by methamphetamine.
Martella doesn’t remember much of that time. As a 1-year-old, she was placed with a foster family for the first time after her parents were sent to prison on drug charges.
Her earliest memory is of being locked out of her house while her mother lay unconscious on the couch.
“I remember banging on the door, banging on the windows for her to let me in,” Martella said. “I spent a lot of time with neighbors because they were sober to take care of me and my mom wasn’t.”
Martella was 5 when her mother’s drug addiction caught up with her and she died from an overdose.
“I never really knew my mom,” she said. “She never stayed clean, so she never got custody back like my dad.“
After her mother’s death, she and her father moved across the country to Pennsylvania, where at 12, Martella said, she made the first of six attempts to end her life.
It had started when feelings fueled by the loss of her mother and her growing hatred toward her father, Martella began to cut herself. She said the physical pain offered her escape from the grief.
“At first I was just scratching, but then I was actually stealing blades,” she said. “It was a different type of pain.”
These feelings intensified as she got older.
Not long after, Martella was institutionalized for the first time.
“After being institutionalized, my parents couldn’t deal with me anymore,” she said. “So they put me in foster care after me and my dad got into a physical fight.”
A year later, her family moved from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin, where she was joined by her half-sister, who had a history of drug addiction.
The move to Wisconsin and the newfound burden of caring for an older sibling didn’t help Martella’s fragile mental state.
“My family pretty much said I know the rules and I have to take care of her,” she said. “I was going insane because I’m 13 and having to take care of my sister who’s like 18.”
A few weeks before the start of the school year, Martella said, she attempted to kill herself again — this time leaping from her second-story window, cracking her hip. Once again, the young teen was placed in a mental institution, where she would spend her eighth-grade year.
Upon her release, she was placed with a new foster family, but things only got worse.
The summer after her freshman year, Martella, then 15, decided to run away from home and live life on her terms.
“I ran away because I wanted to not die,” she said. “I felt running away and getting away from everything would just help.”
Martella found herself on the North Side of La Crosse, where, walking in a neighborhood in the early morning hours, she was approached by two men.
“I was scared; I didn’t know what to do,” she said.
During the next three days, Martella said, a man assaulted her and forced her to carry and deal his drugs.
“I didn’t say no, but I didn’t say yes,” she said, describing how scared and trapped she felt. “I did it to stay alive.”
“He lied to me, told me he was 27, said to play like I was 20,” she said. “I did my first drug deal that weekend.”
After three days with this man and fearing for her life, Martella called for help.
“He was about to take me to Chicago,” she said. “The cops say he was grooming me to sell me.”
In early March, Martella’s attacker was sentenced to 12 years in prison and 8 years on extended probation.
She returned to her foster parents and soon after discovered she was pregnant.
“Abortion never crossed my mind,” she said, adding she never considered giving her child up either. “I was determined to help that kid no matter what.”
A pregnant teen proved too much for her foster family; two weeks before she gave birth, they gave her up.
“I don’t think they approved,” she said. “They didn’t quite like me.”
Martella was placed with Carrie and Michael Goyette.
Soon after she entered their home, they began to bond.
The Goyettes guided Martella through childbirth and helped her to raise her daughter like she was one of their own.
“They are my family,” she said. “They are the mother and father I never had.”
Martella didn’t expect this to last. A lifetime of disappointment had taught her not to get attached.
She said the first time she felt like part of the family was when her foster parents’ daughter Trisha called her a sister.
“My heart broke a little because I didn’t know what it’s like to have siblings,” she said. “I have a lot (of siblings), but I don’t know them.”
In the middle of her sophomore year, with a newborn baby, Martella returned to school.
She’d been accepted into Hope Academy, a school for teen parents aimed at helping them complete their high school educations while learning to raise and support their children.
Here, Range taught Martella how to build good relationships and to leverage community resources and other life skills.
While she completed her academics at Hope Academy, she took a hot metals class at Holmen High School, where she discovered a passion for welding.
“When the girls leave, we make sure they have a firm grasp on what’s available in the community to support them as young women,” she said.
For Martella, Hope Academy was a godsend.
“Hope Academy has done a lot for me,” she said. “It’s amazing; I get to bring my kid to school with me.”
Range said Martella was working through a lot of pain when she first entered the academy.
“She was really struggling when we first got her.” Range said. “She had a lot of battles to fight.”
Range said Martella has thrived, making tremendous progress as both a student and as a mother.
“She had a lot of hurts and a lot of pain, and I think we’ve seen a lot of healing,” Range said. “I see her as a really strong independent woman. I have lots of hope for her future.”
With her high school education coming to a close, Martella looks forward to launching headlong into WTC’s welding program.
In the meantime, she’s focused on working two jobs, at Subway and JCPenny, to support her daughter and make Aiyana’s first big Christmas memorable.
“Aiyana is the reason I am still alive,” she said.