This post is the first in a three-part series from students participating in Global Citizen Year, a global bridge year program designed to unleash the potential of high school students as leaders and effective agents of change.

As a young idealist, it is tempting to paint every story of sacrifice with saints in street clothes and happy endings. However, after several months of living in a small Bahian town and confronting the reality of poverty in the developing world without the flattering filter of distance, I find it increasingly difficult to spin the yarn of a fairy tale. I’ve been stunned and humbled by the harsh reality of many people’s stories during my time in Brazil far more times than I’ve heard anything close to a “happily ever after.”

The protagonist of this story, similarly, is not a princess. Marcia is the daughter of a schizophrenic mother and an absent father. She is a victim of an early miscarriage, a middle school dropout, and a young wife. Although her past included many obstacles, she was happily married to a financially stable husband. Marcia had found happiness, but it was short lived and quickly snuffed out in 2005.

That year, Marcia’s sister, Angelica, was murdered by her own husband in front of their child, which resulted in Marcia’s adoption of her five-year-old nephew, Ronaldo. After witnessing the murder of his mother, Ronaldo went into shock and remained in a coma for four months. During this time, his father was put in jail for the murder, and Marcia was forced to assume responsibility for the young boy. When he finally came out of his coma, he had suffered severe damage to his kidneys and nervous system. The shock and coma resulted in permanent mental regression to age three.

Soon after Ronaldo moved in, Marcia’s husband left from the stress of having him in the house. In 5 months, Marcia had gone from a happily married wife to an unemployed, single mother with a special needs child and without the support of a family. Marcia stopped leaving the house with Ronaldo for fear of his anxiety attacks; she stopped seeing men out of grief; and she couldn’t face her family for their lack of understanding of her newfound situation.

Six years after her sister’s murder, Marcia retells the story without tears in her eyes and without any flair for drama. I wouldn’t have noticed that she was telling such a harrowing tale if it she hadn’t called my attention from the dishes she was doing with a “Viu, Annie?” (or “Hear that, Annie?”). Ronaldo sat on the couch playing with half of a plastic spinning top as Marcia explained that she now lives for him. Although this sounds like an altruistic statement, she frames it with resentment. “Maybe I would have had more patience if I got him as a baby. But now, I can’t help but be frustrated,” Marcia explains. Marcia claims that she will never have a husband for the rest of her life, as she is already working as a slave to her nephew.

Just as anyone is prone to want to paint this story as a woman’s valiant struggle against a society that let her sister’s murderer out of jail only months after the crime, one could also call her callous and harsh for not embracing Ronaldo as the son she always wanted. Marcia loses her patience when he shoves toys in her lap during a conversation and verbalizes her envy that her friends can take their kids with them to parties, a staple of Brazilian social life. Without knowing the context of the relationship, anyone could accuse her of not fulfilling her role as a giving mother, but not everyone could overcome what Marcia has. She works as a kindergarten teacher while Ronaldo is at school, she pays rent in government housing, and attends night school—all while raising a nephew who is fixed at the intellectual level of a toddler. This December, Marcia will be taking the exam to pass the equivalent of the 8th grade. “A lot of doors have closed for me,” Marcia said, “but I see a few opening as well.”

Marcia’s story is only one of the many that are common to small communities lacking social resources in the developing world. For me, it is a poignant reminder that not every story needs a silver-tongued narrator or archetypes to create something worth telling. When Marcia shared her story with me, her objective was not to evoke pity, which does her little good. However, her story teaches us that a woman does not have to be a Susan B. Anthony to overcome obstacles in a male-dominated society. Nor can she afford to be a Cinderella and wait for prince charming; Marcia has to rescue herself.

Would Marcia's and Ronaldo's story have played out differently in a developed country?

Read “One Book to Save the Town: A Global Citizen Year Story.”

Read “Hypertension: A Global Citizen Year Story.”