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'It's a dream': From orphanage to runway, model walks at Fashion Week

Sep. 10, 2012 at 2:22 PM ET

Fior Mendez, an orphan from the Dominican Republic, wears Nzinga Knight as she walks the runway on Friday, Sept. 7, at the fifth annual Harlem's Fashi...
Bennett Raglin / Getty Images
Fior Mendez, an orphan from the Dominican Republic, wears Nzinga Knight as she walks the runway on Friday, Sept. 7, at the fifth annual Harlem's Fashion Row show during New York Fashion Week.

Just two months ago, Fior Mendez lived in an orphanage in the Dominican Republic, keeping close watch over her surrogate brothers and sisters. Despite her hardships, she always told friends that one day she would be a runway model, just like the young women on television whom they admired.

Now, she's made that dream a reality, having walked the runway on Friday night at Lincoln Center for New York Fashion Week.

Speaking to TODAY.com with a translator’s help, Mendez choked up with tears when she described the astonishing changes her life has undergone in just a few short weeks.

“I’m overwhelmed emotionally, it’s a dream,” said the 22-year-old, who is surprisingly well-versed in fashion lingo and hopes to one day walk for Chanel. “I couldn’t imagine that a person like me would be doing this in New York City.”

At 21, Mendez became too old to remain at the orphanage any longer, but a good friend of the organization's founder, Sonia Hane, invited the aspiring model to come live with her in New York City to learn English. That led to a meeting with a casting agent, and an opportunity to walk the runway during New York Fashion Week for Nzinga Knight, an American Muslim designer with a Caribbean background.

Orphaned Starfish Foundation /
Fior Mendez (in yellow) as a teenager with her friends at the Orfanato Ninos de Cristo orphanage in La Romana, Domincan Republican.

Knight didn’t even know about Mendez’s unusual history when she hired her to wear her designs at the fifth annual Harlem’s Fashion Row show.

"Just as my third casting session was about to be over, Fior Mendez walked in the room and did her walk and had this wonderful expression on her face, plus natural beauty," Knight told TODAY.com. "I was sold."

Knight later learned that the early years of Mendez's life were fraught with homelessness and uncertainty. Mendez moved often with her mother and four siblings, and they rarely knew where the next meal would come from.

When Mendez was 13, her mother decided she could no longer take care of all her children. She left the girl at Orfanato Niños de Cristo orphanage in the town of La Romana. Since then, Mendez has had no contact with her family.

But she says she found a family of a different kind in the orphanage, where she spent eight years of her life. There she became part of a community and established herself as a “quiet leader,” quickly becoming the right-hand woman of Hane, the orphanage’s founder.

Orphaned Starfish Foundation /
Fior Mendez (right) in her school uniform as a child at the orphanage.

“I was very scared before,” Mendez said. “I had no one place to live, so every night I went to sleep scared and didn’t know if I would get a meal.”

Female orphans in Latin America often fall into prostitution or remain in poverty, but she started going to school at the orphanage and received computer training, said Andy Stein, who got to know Mendez when his nonprofit, The Orphaned Starfish Foundation, built a computer center for Orfanato Niños de Cristo.

“She is an incredibly kind soul,” Stein told TODAY.com. “What you’ll always see on her face is a massive smile.”

Before her slender 5-foot-10-inch build became an asset on the catwalk, she used it to her benefit to play volleyball at the orphanage. But modeling was an early — and enduring — obsession, one she picked up from the many modeling shows broadcast in the Dominican Republic. As a lanky teenager, Mendez would practice poses in the mirror.

Orphaned Starfish Foundation /
This is the orphanage where Fior Mendez, 22, grew up.

With a support system, including Stein and his foundation, the transition wasn’t as difficult as it could have been for an orphan heading to the big city without a command of English. Stein’s girlfriend introduced Mendez to Prince Riley, the founder of boutique modeling firm Signature Talent Agency. Riley immediately signed the “natural poser” and sent her out on casting calls.

“Every casting I’ve sent her on she’s booked,” he told TODAY.com. “The fashion industry is definitely embracing her.”

Though she plans to continue sashaying down the runway, she also hopes to inspire orphaned and homeless children back in the Dominican Republic. In the future she’d like to study communications and become a newscaster or spokesperson.

“I want to help homeless children have a voice,” she said.

For now, Mendez is soaking in the scene of Fashion Week, keeping up with her English classes and learning how to navigate New York City. Her thoughts, however, are never far from the orphanage she called home for many years, and the children who made up her surrogate family.

“I want to be a light for those kids,” she said. “I want to show them that if you are dedicated, you can do something, and that even if you’re sad, you always have hope.”

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Fashion Week kicks off in New York
Slideshow: Celebs celebrate Fashion Week

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