WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.
Jessica Compton has overcome many challenges to get to where she is today — an education worker in Hamilton who's running her own program encouraging mental health through storytelling, journal writing, live music and meditation.
Compton, 44, was only eight years old when a man broke into her family's house at 2 a.m., took her out of bed, brought her to his car and sexually assaulted her.
"From that point, I was mute. I wouldn't talk to anybody. I was in shock," Compton told CBC Hamilton.
The trauma of the assault took a toll.
"I was running away. I was bullying kids at school, taking my anger out on other people," she said.
"I did see a therapist and they diagnosed me with ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder]. So, I became a bully and just taking my stuff out on other people, you know, spitting on kids, taking their lunches, kicking them, just getting into trouble."
In the foster homes, I was sexually assaulted by one of the teenage girls. She was, I think, 17 at the time and I was 11. - Jessica Compton
Born and raised in North Bay, Ont., police found Compton and her sister — who were living with their mother at the time — malnourished, and they spent minimal time in school.
The Children's Aid Society took both children from their mother, who had been drinking and taking drugs. CAS later placed them in the custody of their father.
Living in the streets, couch hopping
Compton said she ended up in different foster homes, and was assaulted twice while in the system.
"In the foster homes, I was sexually assaulted by one of the teenage girls. She was, I think, 17 at the time and I was 11," she said.
"And then the foster father, you know, at a different place, he sexually assaulted me as well. Additionally to that, I would come down to Hamilton for visits. There was a family member of mine who sexually assaulted me.
"So, as you can see, just everywhere I went, there was ... something going on with being a victim. Like I was so little, I didn't understand, just moving around all over the place."
At age 12, Compton started smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee and using marijuana.
When she was 15, she started a fire, blowing up some telecommunications equipment in North Bay. She was arrested and incarcerated — one of four times she was put behind bars.
Compton said she also assaulted a police officer, stole a car, did drugs and escaped custody.
"It was just this ongoing behaviour of living on the streets, couch hopping," she said.
"Back in the day, the Salvation Army, they never used to lock, and I would go in there and sleep on the clothes at 10 at night, and going into Tim Hortons garbage bins. I would ask them, 'When you throw your doughnuts, can you just not dump the ashtrays from the restaurant so I can eat the doughnuts?' He would be nice about it and he would actually open the back door and not throw it in the garbage anymore."
A turning point
At one of her incarcerations, Compton said the court offered her six months in prison or three months in rehab.
"I took the rehab and it was a lot of cans of worms that were open ... I had to deal with a lot of stuff that I had kind of put into a room and just kind of kept my garbage there."
After completing rehab, Compton completed high school when she was 21.
"And then I graduated from the correctional worker program from Niagara College. I had to wait, I think it was 11 years altogether for my Canadian pardon, so I worked with kids in a group home for 15 years."
Today, Compton is an education assistant with the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB).
"I've been on the school board for nine years and just working, working with individuals that are struggling with anything, really, just somebody that's going to listen to them and help guide them to the best of my abilities," Compton said.
"I've also been working at the YMCA after school program at my school. So when the bell rings, I go and work with them as a supervisor. I've been there for two years."
'I didn't want to be here'
Four years ago, Compton underwent surgery for a hernia.
She was supposed to be off work for three weeks, but had many different issues and was laid up for five months.
"In this time, I was kind of going through a rough period where I just didn't want to be here anymore, you know, a bit of suicidal ideation," Compton said.
"I literally had to sit with myself and I started reading these self-help books. And, you know, one of the self-help books from Louise Hay was, you know, 'Go look in the mirror and say, I love you and tell yourself that you love yourself.'"
Tree of Stars
Compton said she emerged from that low point in her life with a new vision and renewed purpose.
She founded Tree of Stars, to promote mental health awareness, and help in addiction recovery through music and wellness.
"I created this Hamilton café tour where I reach out to other people that have been through trauma that experience homelessness or suicidal ideation or recovery addictions," Compton said.
"I started going to different cafés and these café owners were so receptive … I would meet up with people. Then I turned it into a journal session where people would come and sit with me and I would prompt people what to write about.
"I run it every Wednesday on Zoom, and I have a different musician from around the world that comes and performs a little bit of instrumental, and then we do a bit of meditation as well. Before the pandemic, sometimes I would have three people show up, sometimes 50 people show up."
Compton has also been involved in other outreach projects through Tree of Stars.
'A breath of fresh air'
Compton's current and former colleagues say she has a unique ability to teach others.
Jennifer Beattie and Compton worked together at the HWDSB.
"From the minute I met her, I knew my classroom would be a successful community of learners with her there," Beattie said about Compton. "She brings compassion, empathy, a wealth of knowledge and expertise beyond no other."
Cindy Muller, a teacher with the HWDSB and educator with the YMCA, said, "Jessica is an extraordinary example of leadership, adventure, advocacy, compassion, creativity and hard work. Jessica is a risk taker but a stabilizer. She is a believer in seeing in the good in others and prompts them to take action."
Starla Brason worked with Compton for several years in a residential-care home facility for youth boys.
She said Compton played a major role in ensuring the boys would be prepared for living on their own — assisting them in planning and preparing meals in the home, budgeting and other basic necessities that would be beneficial to those who would be living on their own or with minimal assistance.
"She spent countless hours mentoring each individual to make sure that not only physical needs were met, but also the social emotional needs were as well," Brason told CBC News.
"Having her as part of the team felt like a breath of fresh air because she truly understood how the boys felt due to her own personal story."
Rebecca Kellner and Compton both became members of the HWDSB around the same time.
"She has this ability to teach others how to reframe their thinking without saying so," Kellner said.
"She's taught us how to approach music and visual arts in a more enjoyable way — reframing our thinking and moving away from, 'This has to be perfect!' 'I cannot share,' to 'Breathe and enjoy the moment,' 'Stop thinking. Done?' Let's celebrate."'