It wasn’t just cleaning to me. It was a symbol of cleaning my life up, too.

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“Hey Shel … do you see all of that oil in the river?” my brother asked as we stood near the Duwamish River.

“The oil in there is going to spread by miles and pollute all the fish in the water until someone cleans it, and it’s our fault. Yours, mine, our parents. All because of things we put in our drain.”

He continued, “Think about it. Someone in our lives right now is doing that to us. Polluting our lives with a lot of negative energy and abuse. Their negativity and abuse is the oil and we’re the water. Until we start to take all that oil out … we will always be as damaged as this river.”

I started silently crying because I had never thought about something so deeply before.

I knew how right he was about it. I really needed to start cleaning my life up. I had gotten into some pretty bad stuff, like coming home drunk my freshman year and then losing all my freedom because I was caught by my parents.

I did it all because I was sad and there was nothing else to do but be sad and, well, be with the wrong crowd. I was in a physically and emotionally abusive relationship, which made me even sadder.

It was so hard to get away and I couldn’t tell anyone because, well, it was kind of dangerous to. It was my lowest point in life. I thought I could never get out.

Depression and anxiety were my two best friends and my brother was friends with them, as well. It was like walking around with cinder blocks chained to our ankles.

One day I was offered a position for a program called the Duwamish Valley Youth Corps. I didn’t know what it was but I would get paid for it, so my eyes turned into dollar signs.

My brother and I were in the program together, as well as some of my other friends at the time. I started learning things, like how we can change the way we are and clean up to save the planet. It has to start somewhere, so we started in South Park.

Cleaning up South Park started to change my heart. The labor in the job was kind of tough but it gave me and my brother something to do. And it wasn’t just cleaning to me. It was a symbol of cleaning my life up, too.

Taking all the bad things away that pollute the river helped me have the courage to clean up all the pollution that was in my life, too.

I’ve never been so passionate about anything before. We need environmental justice, we need help to clean the river, we need people to make a difference and I am here to do all of that.

To just be there and be passionate about where I live and grew up.

Shelina Lal, an 18-year-old South Park resident, wants to see an end to the escalating violence her neighborhood, and she hopes to be a part of the solution. (Lauren Frohne & Ramon Dompor / The Seattle Times)