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As a child growing up in the West African nation of Sierra Leone during its horrendous civil war,  Michaela DePrince, 17, witnessed the atrocities of a country tearing itself apart firsthand. Her father was murdered and her mother starved to death shortly afterward.

DePrince was taken to an orphanage by a family member in the hopes that she would be adopted and taken to a better life, but she was treated badly because she had vitiligo.

“I didn’t get enough food, I didn’t get the best clothes, I got the last choice of toys,” DePrince told CNN. “I was in the back, and they didn’t really care if I died or whatever happened to me.”

And if you think things couldn’t get much worse for DePrince, then known as Mabinty Bangura, they did:

Hopelessness and despair engulfed DePrince even further when she witnessed the murder of one of her teachers at the orphanage, a pregnant woman “who was the only person who actually took time to care for me,” she says.

“She was going outside the gate and I was walking with her, I was going to say bye, and then these three rebels come — two older and a younger one and they see that she’s pregnant and what they used to do is if it was a boy, they would keep the baby, if it was a girl they would kill the mother and the baby,” she says.

“So they cut her stomach and they saw that it was a girl, so then they were angry and they cut her arms and legs off and left her and the baby there. I was trying to save her and so I went underneath the gate and the little boy saw all these older people doing these things and I guess he wanted to impress them and thought it was funny, so he stabbed me and so I actually have a scar from it and it was a black out after that — I have no idea how I survived that, it was awful.”

Throughout her difficult early childhood, there was some light.

One day, a magazine picture of a ballerina blew up against the orphanage gate. The ballerina was wearing a tutu and pointed shoes. DePrince hid the picture the only place she knew it would be safe from the abusive adults and tormenting children in the orphanage–in her underwear. She would secretly take it out and imitate the moves of the ballerina in the picture. Soon she was adopted by American parents.

That love of her dance stuck with her and she began taking classes in Philadelphia. She progressed quickly with a lot of hard work and dedication. Much like Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas, DePrince had to overcome stereotypes about Blacks to succeed.

One dance teacher told a 10-year-old DePrince that she didn’t spend time training Black ballerinas because “they just get fat and get big boobs and big thighs.” Another teacher said she didn’t have the body of a professional dancer. And once, at the age of 8, she was pulled from playing the role of “Marie” in a performance of “The Nutcraker” because “people aren’t ready for a black ‘Marie.'”

I wonder where that teacher was when DePrince performed internationally for the first time in the Netherlands last December? Where was that teacher who said DePrince didn’t have a dancer’s body when, because of her talent, strength and determination, she had to decide between offers from the American Ballet Theatre and the Dance Theatre of Harlem performance company (she chose the Dance Theatre of Harlem)? And where was that teacher who said the world wasn’t ready for a Black to play the role of “Marie” in “The Nutcracker” when DePrince returned to the continent of her birth in September for her professional debut in South Africa?

For overcoming adversity that most people can only imagine, DePrince is the Shine Awards Most-Inspiring Story Winner.

Now, DePrince is on a mission to use her story to change the world. She wants to attract more Black girls to ballet and wants to give back to her homeland by starting an art school in Sierra Leone. She wants to inspire other little girls who find themselves in difficult circumstances like she did so that they can overcome.

“I take what’s in my past and put it in my body,” she says. “My life is proof that no matter what situation you’re in, as long as you have a supportive family, you can achieve anything.”

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