Carrying a duffel bag, two backpacks and her guitar, 17-year-old Dayana Morfin hopped on a bus in Yakima, Wash., in November, leaving behind her family and an environment filled with drugs and abuse.

Carrying a duffel bag, two backpacks and her guitar, 17-year-old Dayana Morfin hopped on a bus in Yakima, Wash., in November, leaving behind her family and an environment filled with drugs and abuse.

Only a week before, a cousin had put a gun to her head and forced her to sleep outside when she refused to help with a drug deal.

Following the incident, Morfin, with a boldness that surprised even herself, thanked her aunt and told her she was leaving.

She paid her fare using money she had earned packing fruit. Her exodus took her to her godfather's home in Medford, and she began attending Phoenix High School, her fourth high school in less than four years.

"I had gone 11 years without seeing or talking to him, so it was like being with a stranger, but at that point, he was my last hope," she said.

A semester behind, Morfin had to make up four classes to be eligible to graduate. She would stay after school or study through her lunch hour to complete the credit requirements.

"She was here until 5 (p.m.) most days, as late as credit retrieval was open," said her teacher and mentor Sarah Siervert. "Talk about tenacity."

Although English is her first language, Morfin is more comfortable communicating in Spanish or Italian and has spent the last three years relearning her "native" language.

When Siervert and other school staff learned about Morfin's living situation, they connected her with Hearts with a Mission, a shelter for homeless and at-risk youth.

In January, Morfin moved into Hearts with a Mission, where she lives with about a dozen other youths ages 10 to 17. She abides by a strict schedule, has a curfew and must keep her room clean, but she is safe. Her case manager, Jessie Lenford, said she'll likely remain there until she turns 18 in September.

When she was 6 years old, Morfin's father was killed, and her mother sent her and her two younger sisters to live with relatives in Mexico. The sisters were split up and left to the care of a godmother, grandmother and aunt, all living in different parts of the country.

After nearly eight years of living in abusive households in Mexico, Morfin moved to Italy to live with her father's mother. When her grandmother moved to Colorado from Italy, Morfin accompanied her. Two years later, she returned to Washington to live with her mom's sister and her cousin.

"He (the cousin) was part of my mom's family, and he was abusive," Morfin said. "He pushed me to sell drugs and do things I didn't want to do."

In 2013, Morfin decided she wanted to end her life.

"I was ashamed of my story," she said.

She started writing a goodbye note to her sisters explaining why. However, as she scribbled down her thoughts on a piece of paper, she became aware that "in breaking the silence" her hurt subsided. Journaling and writing music became a kind of therapy for her. She slept better, and her nightmares and chronic pain ceased.

"All that depression didn't go away, but it wasn't at that high level that I wanted to kill myself," she said.

This spring, Morfin decided to do her senior paper on the benefits of writing. She invited her fellow students in an English Language Learners class and other kids at Hearts with a Mission to write for 20 minutes about their lives, feelings and fears.

Her directions read: "It doesn't matter if it's a long or short story. The only thing that really matters is that what you say is what you need to say, what you really want to say, but sometimes you are afraid to."

Fifty-seven students responded to Morfin's call for stories. Some wrote poems, some wrote in Spanish, some wrote several pages and many shared detailed accounts of emotional and physical abuse, their parents' divorce, their personal tragedies and the poverty in which they live.

"We've broken that silence," Morfin said. "Everybody has something to say that we can learn from."

The project became even more personal when, four weeks ago, Morfin's 13-year-old sister committed suicide.

"Reading the stories, I found empathy and hope when my sister did what she did," Morfin said, pulling her sunglasses down to hide the emotions that were surfacing.

"I know I can't save everyone's life, but at least I can give them hope and inspiration."

Morfin plans to publish the stories, including her own, anonymously in a book. She also created a story board, which sits outside of Siervert's office, with 29 of the stories.

"The students are thrilled that their stories are being heard without it being them, and the teachers are finding out how much is happening in these students' lives," Siervert said. "That alone has opened up conversations and really let the empathy grow."

Earlier this month, Morfin gave her senior presentation informally to her ELL class, some school staff and Nancy Golden, Oregon's chief education officer.

"She doesn't have a big voice, but the room was totally silent," Siervert said. "The air was wrought with tension, and the empathy was palpable."

In sharing her story, Morfin got others to open up and unlock their own sense of worth, promoting empathy and trust, Siervert added.

"I've been teaching for over 15 years, and I've never met anyone with quite as much resilience and determination to see things in a positive light," she said. "She's an inspiration to everybody, not just her classmates, but her teachers and the entire school."

Morfin is set to graduate June 7. Although she doesn't have any financial aid yet, she plans to attend Southern Oregon University this fall and then, maybe, Boston University or Colorado Technical University.

"I'd like to do a million things, but I think I want to be a DEA agent because I grew up in a family of drug dealers," she said.

Reach education reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4497 or Follow her at