‘Love them first’ — A principal assigned to the neighborhood where she was abused as a child transforms her school

October 6, 2017 4:40 pm Last Updated: October 6, 2017 5:10 pm

When elementary principal Mauri Melander Friestleben was assigned to Lucy Laney Community School in Minneapolis, Minnesota, she was shocked. It was in the area where she had lived as a child.

“This is a very emotional place for me,” said Friestleben in a KARE11 interview.

The 42-year-old, who for a long time intentionally avoided driving through her old neighborhood, wasn’t sure if she could bear to be in that environment. But before long, Friestleben realized she was put there for a reason.

Painful Local Memories

Friestleben had spent the first few months of her life in foster care. Friestleben’s mother is white, her father is black, and her parents met in college. When the couple found out about their unplanned pregnancy, they kept it a secret from other family members.

“No matter the pain, I will always be thankful to my mom for keeping me. Now, the things that happened after that, they made me who I am today,” said Friestleben emotionally.

Not A Way To Grow Up

Often left with neighbors, Friestleben was cared for many times in one of two neighborhood homes. One was a refuge, the other, not so much. That home was pure torture. And that is the home where she would spend the majority of the time.

“To think what they did to children in that house and me being one of those children, is still a difficult pill for me to swallow,” explained Friestleben.

“All the people coming in and out of that house were so dark, and the things they did to me or watched do to me, or allowed being done to me are things they will have to deal with in life.”

Abuse and Neglect

From age 3 to age 5, Friestleben endured severe sexual abuse while in the care of those neighbors, repeatedly and violently abused by teenage brothers who were also living in the home. Her mother never reported the abuse.

“For whatever reason, she was not able to address and deal with it at that time. When she did come for me, I was so grateful that she came. I was never mad at her. You know who I was most angry with was God,” said Friestleben. “Because to me, my mom did not have the capacity to change my circumstances, but I always thought He did.”

Healing the Trauma

Friestleben spent a majority of the rest of her youth learning how to cope with the anger she felt, along with post-trauma and other mental health issues.

“I probably should not be standing before you, maybe not alive. There were many dark days when I thought—I don’t want to live this life,” said Friestleben.

“Anyone would expect someone like me who went through that or other children going through that to be broken, unhealable, damaged goods that will never overcome, never survive, definitely never be successful,” she said.

A Newfound Purpose

Fortunately, Friestleben was able to heal. But she still had trouble just going back to that neighborhood.

“So, when I got the assignment for Lucy Laney, I was like, ‘Wow, God, of all the places in north Minneapolis, why would you have me a stone’s throw away from the most difficult childhood experiences?’” reflected Friestleben.

Three years ago, she became the school’s principal. The three years before that, she was their Assistant Principal.

She Knows The Story Of Her Students

90% of students at Lucy Laney Community School live in poverty, and Friestleben empathizes. That is now their shared experience. Many of her kids also endure trauma, just as she did. When she recognizes the same desperation, pain, and hollowness in their eyes, she offers what she needed–love.

“I also know that this is not coincidence I am back where that pain was emanating from, because it makes me stronger, it makes me better, and it makes me able to deeply identify with my students and my families.”


After six years, her students, who had been among the lowest state test scores in the district, are improving consistently on standardized tests.

“Now I get it, that was not the end of my story,” said Friestleben. “I was able to overcome things that would break many. It bent me, but it didn’t break me.”

‘Love Them First’

Today, when she walks in her old neighborhood with echoes of her childhood still inside her brain, she represents the light amidst the darkness of her childhood. This is no mistake and she knows it. Why? Because in every child she touches another light is ignited.

Friestleben has some excellent advice to offer: “Any time anybody sees a child that looks forlorn, lost, not taken care of, spread your arms, scoop them up, ask questions later, but love them first,” she said.

Today, Friestleben has two daughters and will be married this summer. Having pursued education and made it her career, she is on a new path with a purpose and inspiring others with her story. And that is a story of resilience, persistence, fortitude, sprinkled with positivity and a whole bunch of love.



Source: Principal finds purpose after surviving childhood abuse from Kare11.