Hillsborough county graduate rises from abuse, poverty

July 15, 2015

TAMPA (FOX 13) – It’s graduation season. Thousands of local students are making the leap from high school to college.

But for homeless students, it’s a benchmark that at one time seemed unreachable.

Kelsey Mitchell graduated Monday from Tampa’s Robinson High School. If you asked her a year ago if she thought she’d see this day, she might not be so sure. Now, her future is not only clear, it’s also bright.

“Oh, relief. It’s over,” Mitchell said, describing her feelings on graduation day. “I went through hell and back. I went through 13 schools, 5 high schools, and didn’t think I was going to make it, but I did.”

Kelsey is also a poet. Her words come from some of the darkest times of her young life.

“My book is no longer a tragedy,” she reads. “I think I will call it tenacity, looked into the mirror and finally saw what they all see. I said hello to the beautiful me.”

She had a sexually abusive stepfather. After escaping that, her mother couldn’t afford electricity, food or rent.

“I remember one night, white rice and tomato paste was what was for dinner. Whatever was in the pantry,” Mitchell said.

“In the middle of summer, we had no electricity and it was so hot that the thermostat went all the way to 95 degrees. We would have to wet our clothes in the shower and just stay in there to be cool.”

Mom eventually moved to live with a friend in Arizona. Kelsey stayed in Tampa.

She’d already been to 17 different schools. Still, she tried #18: Robinson High School, enrolling as an unaccompanied youth.

“I got a job at Wendy’s. I was working until 2 in the morning,” Mitchell said. “And I was getting up at 5:00 a.m., still going to school.”

A counselor got wind of her plight, directing her to “Starting Right, Now,” a Hillsborough County non-profit helping homeless students graduate.

“There are 3,200 homeless youth or students in the county right this second,” said founder Vicki Sokolik. “We are ending the generational cycle of poverty, which is very exciting.”

They gave Kelsey a safe place to live, rides to school, mentoring, food stamps and Medicaid. She went from 50 absences her junior year to only 5 her senior year.

“They take care of everything, so all we have to do is get up in the morning and go to school and do scholarships,” Mitchell said.

She earned plenty. “The biggest one was Horatio Alger,” Mitchell said. “It’s a national scholarship. It’s $22,000.”

This 18-year-old propelled herself from a state of hopelessness all the way to Florida State University.

“I am stronger than you ever thought possible,” Mitchell recited in her poetry. “I can guarantee you one thing. This world was meant for me to change.”

Kelsey is double majoring in English and Business Marketing.

Next year, even more students like Kelsey will become success stories. “Starting Right, Now” is expanding its Hillsborough County house from 24 to 40 students. And they’re opening a new 50-student facility in Pinellas County.