Survival mode is when our brains and bodies react to a traumatic event or life-threatening situation. For Everest Matross this mode set in at the tender age of three. He shares how his ability to adapt saw him surviving a life on the street and how the help of others saved his life. #VoicesOfYouth #YChallenge#30StoriesIn30Days WeCan24
Born in Johannesburg, to a single mother, Everest (30) endured pain in his life from a young age.
“My mother worked as a domestic and didn’t earn enough so she struggled to provide for us. Because she had to work for us to survive and did not have money for daycare, I would either be left alone at home for the day or at a park close to the house where she was working, on those days she would watch me from the house.”
The financial problems in Everest’s home saw the pair move often.
“I think we moved a lot because my mom couldn’t afford the rent. I remember there were times when we would leave in the middle of the night. On those occasions, my mom would normally meet someone at a garage and we would stay at their place for a few nights.”
Everest says that details around his early childhood are blurred, however, he does remember that the relationship he had with his mother was not a simple one.
“She was passionate – almost ruthless – about me learning things from a young age. I remember her trying to teach me the time when I was three. We stood in front of a clock and she would tell me what the numbers on the clock meant. Every time I got it wrong she would beat me, it was first with a cane then it progressed to whatever object was close to her.”
The beatings Everest received were not restricted to moments when he couldn’t learn at the pace his mother wanted him to, but at any time when she wasn’t happy with him.
“One day I was alone and hungry at home, I thought about the way my mother made food so I took things out of the cupboard – not that much – and put it all in a pot and tried to make something to eat. When my mother came home from work to find the mess and no food, she was enraged, screaming at me and saying that we had no more food because of what I did. She began beating me with whatever she could get into her hands. I was scared of her and had to get away but I had nowhere to go.”
While others his age were learning about shapes and colours he was plotting ways to escape the wrath of his abusive mother.
“My first instinct was to get out, run away. My mom always left early in the morning to go to work, she would lock me inside so I thought I would climb out of the window and find somewhere safe. I was very small when I ran away the first time. We were living in the backyard of someone’s house and when I escaped I went to them and explained what my mother was doing to me. They listened and just said okay, I don’t think they even understood me I was so young. It didn’t turn out the way I wanted because when my mother returned from work they took me home.
“I remember my mother looked at me with anger in her face. After the neighbours left, she sent me outside to fetch a stick. I fetched one and brought it to her – fully knowing what was going to happen – she took it and began hitting me. But it wasn’t enough. She then grabbed a plank with screws in it and hit me until she was tired. I was bleeding pretty badly and spent the rest of the night trying to cover my wounds.
“I knew that I needed to get away from her and a couple of days later I ran away again. This time I went to one of my mother’s former employees. I told them what was happening, but then the same thing happened as before. They took me home and told her what I had said. The only difference this time was that the beating lasted longer.”
After failing to escape the second time, Everest said that he decided that he would run away again, except this time the only person he would rely on was himself.
“One day I put on the warmest clothes that I had and escaped through the window. After a couple of hours, it was dark and I was starving. I had no food and no one to fend for me. So I began to beg for money.
“Being on the street was scary, I was little and whenever I got some money from begging the older kids would steal it from me. There were times when I thought about going back home, but feared what my mother would do to me – I wondered if she would kill me.”
Sadly, hunger and beatings were not the worse that Everest endured while living on the street.
“I was on my last lifeline one night. Starving, cold and scared… I sat on the side of the road when a man presented himself to me as a policeman and told me to get into his car because he could take me to a safe place where I could sleep and be fed.
“We drove for a while before he turned into an off street and stopped the car. He moved my head towards his pants. When I said no and fought back, he locked the doors, and began beating me into doing what he wanted me to do. At some point, when things got really bad, I turned off completely. My next conscious memory was the feeling of being dragged out of the car into a drain where he continued molesting me. I remember lying down in the sewer water and thinking about how I can get out of this situation.”
Everest survived the incident but no matter how much he tried to avoid being at risk again, he was sexually assaulted a few more times while he was on the street.
“At the time I was trying to figure out how not to get into the situation again. The guy who assaulted me the first time had a certain type of car so I believed if I avoided that type of car I would be safer. However, I encountered other men with different cars that would prey on me.
“After being hurt so many times I only thought about survival, I would keep moving because if I stayed in one spot I would become a target. I had a loop between Hillbrow and Yeoville, where I picked certain shop fronts to sleep at. I would make money by helping people to park and begging.”
Everest’s turn around began with Nelson Mandela’s initiative in the 90’s when there was a drive to get all homeless children off the streets.
“At some point, the police were arresting homeless kids and staying free became hard. Businesses that would welcome me in the past were now chasing me away. I think I was five years old and managed to elude arrest for a few weeks because I expanded my loop to the suburbs.”
After escaping arrest for a while Everest was eventually caught.
“There were a couple of houses in the suburbs that I would use as a safe space. I would sleep on their front steps, and due to my smallness, they wouldn’t be able to find me. One night while lying there I woke up to someone asking me if I was okay, it was the owner of the house. He told me to come inside, have a shower, and something to eat. I was exhausted and hungry so I agreed. A few hours later a social worker and the police came to pick me up.
“I was sent to stay in a group home where there were about 100 kids and 3-4 people looking after us. I was the smallest there so I was picked on and beat up relentlessly by the older kids. At the first opportunity, I ran away.”
When running away, Everest snuck into a cinema where he watched a movie for the first time.
“I think it was one of the Terminator movies, I loved all the characters but I took on the personality of the main one… a young kid who was adventurous and had the attitude that everything will work out. The movie gave me hope, a sense that eventually, things will figure itself out. It also heightened in me the need for connection with others. To this point I had pretty much run in a pack of one – I always felt I was safer that way. For the first time, I had a desire to interact with people.”
Everest started to speak to children living on the street who told him about a place that offered homeless children a place to sleep and eat.
“I remember going there and after eating, cops and a social worker showing up to collect us. I was done with the streets and went willingly. The social worker took me to a foster home to live with a lady who was housing 12 street kids. There was a television and I became obsessed with it because it was a tool for me to learn. I could literally sit in front of the TV for hours and learn new words all the time. Living there was okay but I think that the house mother was overwhelmed by all of us.
“I was interviewed by Social Workers about my background, but I never said anything because I didn’t want them to take me back to my mother. They placed me in a children’s orphanage, it was a safe space relatively speaking and people seemed to care. The home was a subsidiary of the Nelson Mandela’s Children’s Scholarship Fund, so they decided that I needed to be registered into the system. They took me the head office where I started the process.
“I was done with the interview with a social worker and my transport home was late so I was sent to the boardroom because I could watch some television there. While I was sitting there a man came into the room to introduce himself. I remember not paying him much attention because he was an older male, and by that point, my experiences with older males had not been good. He proceeded to tell me a bit more about himself, that he is from the USA visiting South Africa. After basically ignoring him for a while he asked me to at least tell him my name and I said Everest and he got excited about my name.
“About a month later I received a box of goodies – shoes, clothes, bubble gum and baseball cards. I knew nothing about baseball, but the cards were the only thing that no one else wants to steal from me, so I attached myself to it. They instructed me to write a thank you letter. The streets taught me how to verbally interact with people, but I had not learned how to write. I told them that I couldn’t do it, so they assisted me by drawing lines on the paper for guidance but that did not help either… They discovered that I couldn’t write, so they would write the content of the letter and then I would copy.”
Following that Everest learnt how to write and became a pen pal with the person that sent him the gift.
“In the beginning of the process I did not enjoy it, I would think about other things that I could rather be doing but it wasn’t an option and the house mother would insist I write the letters. After doing it for some time I began enjoying the process, especially after receiving his replies. We connected through the letters where we got to know each other more.
“Going to school was not easy for me because I struggled with male authority figures, I would describe myself as rebellious and mischievous. I loved learning, but following the rules was the difficult part. I would get into lots of trouble at school, I would get into detention and because corporal punishment was still allowed I would get beatings as well. I attended a public school for less than a term and I was moved to a private school afterwards.
“I was made to feel like an outsider, they would introduce me as Everest from the orphanage. I never adapted to it and struggled for the three years I was there. I coped academically but sports became my passion – specifically playing soccer and tennis and watching golf.”
Everest remained in contact with his pen pal, he got to know that he was the gentlemen he had once met in the boardroom. The relationship evolved from letters to visits in America.
“My pen pal was Theodore Forstmann, also known as Ted to family and friends. He was a businessman and philanthropist who had come to South Africa inspired by Nelson Mandela’s work. Ted was one of the organisers of a charity tennis tournament, known as ‘Huggy Bear’ at his summer home in New York. My first visit was during this time; it was overwhelming to see the extent of the different worlds.”
Following the original visit, Everest continued visiting during the holidays until the age of 12 when he moved to America to be adopted.
“During one of the visits my dad explained to me that I was going to live with him, he said we were going to be a family. Moving with him was fun but challenging.
“I was sent to one of the best boarding schools, three hours away from my father’s main house. There was an obvious difference between me and my peers, I didn’t get along with them easily but I persevered. My love for learning became an anchor and my passion for golf developed. I grew to love my father even more and admired what he did in the world.”
Everest graduated with a degree in Economics and is currently a professional golfer. He continues his father’s legacy by helping various charity organisations around the world.
“I believe I became the little boy in Terminator. I began believing that everything would work out. I found the man who protected me and believed that I would grow up to change the world. When you are lucky enough to be surrounded by kindness you become kind yourself. Never forget a simple act of kindness from you, can change someone’s life and the world.”
Salesian Life Choices is an enterprise working towards human profit. We give youth in the Cape Flats (Cape Town) CHOICES, not charity. We promote dignity, not dependency. Youth is 37% of South Africa’s population, but they are 100% of its future. Salesian invest in youth to make choices that can change themselves, their communities and the world. This is not our tagline … this is our promise. Their mission is to tackle inequality. People are born into the world as assets, it is the way we treat them, that make them a liability. At Salesian Life Choices, they dare to imagine the world as it could be. A world where we see beyond differences and we connect with each other as equals. A world of abundance – for all humans and the planet. For More information on what they do please visit our website: www.lifechoices.co.za