Holiday Hopes: HCC student strives to help younger siblings overcome tragedy

December 12, 2014


Telling the story gets a little easier each time, but it is always painful.

He woke early that morning a year and a half ago to his sister’s screams and jumped from his bed. He can’t remember what month it was, just that he was about to take final exams for his junior year at Armwood High School.

In his front yard, hell was playing out. Torn clothes were strewn about and his stepfather, the man he called Dad, was lying on the driveway gasping for breath. His mother, holding a gun, was screaming nearby, “out of her mind drunk.”

Rico Davis hustled his 6-year-old sister and 12-year-old brother inside. He bent down over his dad to talk to him. Ervin Washington didn’t respond. Rico grabbed his mom and tried to talk to her but she was incoherent and didn’t respond. She tried to put the gun in her husband’s hand.

Soon, sheriff’s deputies arrived. His dad was dead and his mother went to jail.

He lost both parents in one night.

• • •

The next day, Rico went to school.

“I didn’t tell people, really. When I came to school, I just didn’t talk about it,” Rico said. “I knew I had to study.”

He and his siblings were split up for the first time. His brother and sister went into foster care. Rico had just turned 18 and stayed with a friend. He was in a fog of sadness.

He started his senior year and a friend told him about a program, Starting Right, Now, which helps homeless high school students graduate and get into college. He applied. Vicki Sokolik, the director, was struck by his story and his drive to succeed. He told her he wanted to get his diploma and be successful to help his siblings, and prove to them that they too could overcome this.

At the time, his brother called him every day after school, crying. “He hated everybody,” Rico said of his brother’s complaints. Rico told him, “Don’t be fighting. Don’t be bad.”

One of the first tasks in the program is to write an essay on how they became homeless. About five months had passed since that night, and it was raw.

“Just put the words down on paper,” Sokolik tells the teens. “We don’t care about grammar.”

Rico had partnered with Sokolik’s husband, Joel.

“It was like I had just woken from a bad dream.” Rico wrote. “My sister was screaming, Daddy got shot!”

Talking about it gets easier, Rico said recently. “But you know, people don’t really like to talk about it.”

He remembers his mother was drunk before he went to bed that night.

“She drank a lot and when she got drunk, she got angry at the world,” he said.

His stepfather had been a longtime coach with the Brandon Lions youth football team. He had coached Rico one year and worked hard to provide for the family.

“Everyone had respect for him,” Rico said. “He was always there for me.”

Washington had stayed away that night, knowing his wife was drunk and angry. The story Rico later heard is that his mother told her husband if he didn’t come home, she would kill the kids in their sleep.

Rico talked to his mother last week. She’s in the Falkenburg Road Jail, with a court hearing set for February. He knows she has lived a troubled life.

Ever since he was little, Rico wanted to take care of his mom, buy her a car and a house. But she’s facing a life sentence.

“If she gets life, it kills my dream,” he said. “I think about it all the time. I love my mom.”

• • •

Rico has worked through much of his emotions with grief counseling and classes at Starting Right, Now, in anger management and emotional intelligence courses and the Dale Carnegie Course.

He also helped his siblings get out of foster care. They now live near Hillsborough Avenue with their grandmother, Claudia Washington. Rico sees them often.

The program helped him get an apartment at Hawk’s Landing, next to Hillsborough Community College where takes classes. So far this semester, he has two A’s and a C.

Rico held that first essay recently, the one he wrote when he entered the program.

“That’s my essay?” he wondered. “It looks short.”

“You were in a fog when you wrote it,” Sokolik said.

Near the end, he had written: I have to succeed. I will be the person I want to be and I know I will accomplish things in my life.”

It earned him several scholarships totaling $60,000, which he plans to use to get a business degree from the University of South Florida.

Contact Elisabeth Parker at