Rocking her baby girl back and forth in the back of the church, Ashley Griffin’s 2-year-old daughter Saleah didn’t seem to be getting better after several days of looking ill.
Born with Down syndrome and two heart defects, Griffin figured it was nothing worse than usual. She planned to wait a day before taking the toddler to the doctor.
When she arrived at her friends’ house, Griffin stepped out of the van and onto the driveway where seconds later, Saleah’s heart beat its last.
“Her body tensed up, and she just fell out, and I listened to her heart. I’m looking, I’m trying, I don’t know what to do,” said Griffin, a freshman sociology major.
Panicked and realizing her daughter just died in her arms, Griffin yelled for help as tears flooded her face and dropped to the ground.
Bent over in the driveway, Griffin pulled her hair, uttering in disbelief, “Oh my God. Oh my God.”
After 30 minutes of frantic attempts to save Saleah, an ambulance finally arrived to take her to Children’s Hospital, another 45 minutes away.
Outside the emergency room door, Griffin waited hopelessly, knowing the doctors’ efforts were not going to bring her daughter back; her baby had died in her arms that Sunday after church.
“The doctors come out and they’re like, ‘We are going to have to call time,'” she said.
Just 17 years old and not even a senior in high school, Griffin endured pain no mother should have to bear.
“I had two years of watching her grow. As a mother I felt like hope was gone,” Griffin said. “It felt like the light in my life had left.”
Despite having to deal with constant visits to the doctor and surgeries for her two heart defects, Griffin said Saleah inspired people around her and touched people’s hearts with her unbendable smile.
“Saleah didn’t give up . she touched everyone,” Griffin said.
“She was pushing people to be their best . she made me say ‘life isn’t as bad as I’m thinking.'”
Griffin said her daughter inspired her and after Saleah’s death, she embarked a mission to be great her last year of high school.
A strong front at CSU
Now a student at CSU, Griffin is continuing her mission to be great and is an active student at CSU with all her expenses paid after receiving every scholarship she applied for.
Saturday, the Black Student Services awarded Griffin outstanding freshman of the year, and the vice president of Black Student Alliance, Quill Phillips, commended Griffin’s achievements.
She described Griffin as strong, independent, motivated and determined, and noted her leadership role with Black Student Alliances as president of the Freshman Action Team, which helps transform students into leaders.
“I look up to her,” Phillips said. “She’s working for greatness.”
Since the age of 10, Griffin says she has had to demonstrate strong leadership to overcome relentless challenges that she faced even before the loss of her daughter.
Absent parents and near homelessness
Griffin’s life had been fairly normal until a move from Arkansas to Denver in 1998 turned it upside down.
Her dad’s once stable job expired after both her parents started dealing crack, and left Griffin and her younger brother and sister in day-to-day fear. “Since 1998 I haven’t had my own home,” she said.
Finding temporary refuge with family and her parents’ drug dealer friends, Griffin recalled moments when her siblings and she were kicked out and forced to find a new place to sleep.
Griffin said her older sister’s one-bedroom apartment was the closest place she called home, and it was the only thing that kept her younger siblings and her from living on the streets and in homeless shelters.
Late-night, high dollar crack deals were common business transactions between her parents and strangers that wandered in and out of their temporary stay in the projects of Denver.
Griffin was young and slept through most of the drug deals, but she recalls the traffic was a constant in and out when night time hit.
Tired from their after hours business, Griffin’s parents usually slept during the day and left Griffin on her own to get ready for elementary school and to raise her two younger siblings.
“Even though I was 10 years old, I was making sure I was at school on time,” Griffin said. “I felt like school was my way out — the place I felt safe.”
However, making it to and from school every day was not always the typical walk most elementary school students would expect to make.
“I remember walking home from school. I see someone lying on the ground being arrested,” Griffin said. “It was my mom.”
That arrest was not the only time her mother sat behind the bars of a prison cell.
In 1998, a drug bust at the place her parents and younger siblings were staying put both her parents in prison with felony charges and left Griffin and her siblings alone again. At a young age, Griffin planned to head in a direction opposite of drugs and violence, and when she had Saleah at the age of 15, she made sure to be a supportive mother and role model.
“I didn’t want her to come home from school to see broken crack pipes,” Griffin said.
Griffin said she kept her daughter in mind with every decision she made and tried to make the best life for Saleah.
“She made it a point to make sure Saleah knew who her mother was,” said Jaleesa McIntosh, Griffin’s cousin who is also a freshman at CSU.
Griffin completed her sophomore year of high school online, so she wouldn’t miss the moments of raising a child. Griffin recorded all of Saleah’s firsts — her first step, first word — making sure not to miss one moment of her baby girl’s life.
Thinking about Saleah today, Griffin said it’s still hard for her, especially since two years ago, April 30, she had been rocking her daughter in the back of a church.
“If I do catch myself about to cry, I redirect my mind somewhere else,” she said.
Despite Griffin’s attempts to keep her emotions locked up, close family and friends say they can still see the pain in her face.
“Sometimes you are able to see she is hurting inside,” McIntosh said.
Finding strength from strife
Griffin said she encourages anyone going through difficult times in their lives to not give up.
“What I would tell anyone going through anything, no matter what it is — if it’s teenage pregnancy, if there’s drugs in the home, if your parents aren’t there — don’t let that stop you,” she said.
“I think that sometimes you let your situation get the best of you. When my daughter died I could’ve easily given up. The environment I was living in, I could’ve easily played into that.”
Griffin said she didn’t let the challenges she faced make her weak. She empowered herself by building strength to push away the obstacles wanting to pull her down.
Griffin said she wants to use her experiences to help others who are dealing with difficult situations and to use her degree to help other kids make the most of their situations and overcome the odds.
“I feel like there is a reason I went through all that, and that is to use my obstacles to help other people,” Griffin said. “I feel like that’s my purpose . so I can reach the people who feel like there is no one there.
“I don’t know where I am going to end up, but I’m definitely going to be something great, definitely.”
Senior Reporter Kaeli West can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.