Holiday Hopes: Plant High student made it this far alone, wants just one thing for college

February 2, 2017

TAMPA — She heard it from the other room, at first thinking her brother was laughing, then knowing he was crying, harder than she’d ever heard before. He only had to say one word — “Mom” — and Catie Purnell knew that her mother was gone. Her knees got weak. She sat on the edge of her bed. Catie did not know how to feel, even though she had known this day was coming for as long as she could remember.

As a toddler, she tripped over empty liquor bottles, one parent out drinking while another passed out on the couch. Her mom and dad screamed at each other in their Georgia home while Catie and her older brother, Tyler, learned to cook dinner and do laundry for themselves.

At school, Catie did not have to be the adult. She loved playing on the soccer team, and in orchestra class, she picked up the violin. Her grades were something she could control.

She had known she wanted to go to college since kindergarten. It seemed like every opportunity lived there. But her mother moved in with a boyfriend, and her father spent all their money on alcohol, so they had to leave home. First it was New Orleans, then here to Tampa. With each school, she had to readjust to the curriculum. But Catie made herself keep up.

Starting the ninth grade at Plant High School, Catie and Tyler took turns locking their father in his bedroom, trying to keep him from finding another bottle. But he always did, and Catie had to quit soccer and violin to take care of him as soon as the afternoon bell rang.

Things looked like they were finally going to get better, just as Catie began her sophomore year. Her father went to rehab for a month, the longest he ever had, and came back sober. The next week, her mother died. It wasn’t long until her father relapsed, Tyler pounding him on his chest while Catie dialed 9-1-1.

He woke up and they kept moving, from apartment to motel, always behind in rent. It wasn’t easy for Catie to get to school. She would scrounge for change for the city bus, or walk, sometimes more than an hour to Plant.

At the end of her sophomore year, she was studying for Advanced Placement and final exams in the lobby of a cheap motel. She shared one room with her father, her brother, their two dogs and a cat for two months. Catie wished she had her own computer as she typed out papers in the lobby lounge; but she told herself she was lucky to have a place to sleep.

Then last summer, Catie became homeless. She applied to Starting Right, Now, a program that houses, tutors and mentors homeless students. Her brother had been admitted the year before.

Now Catie, 17, doesn’t worry about how she’ll get to school in the morning. She lives at Starting Right, Now’s South Tampa facility and takes the bus. As a senior at Plant, she has passed all of the AP exams she’s taken and keeps a 4.5 grade-point average. She applied to eight colleges, and has already been accepted to the University of North Florida and Colorado State University.

The one thing she wants for the holidays is a laptop for college. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it should have a good processor and enough memory for her to use it for four years. If she could have a printer, too, that would go a long way. It was always so hard to print her papers.

Catie can’t wait to meet people like her, who are passionate about learning. She is in the marine science club at Plant. In college, she’ll study conservation biology, and then, hopefully, environmental law. She wants to protect marine life and other animals.

This year, everyone at Starting Right, Now picked a word to work on. Catie chose “voice.” She wants to be heard. She knows she’ll never drink.

In September, she got a phone call from her father’s friend. Her dad had passed away, too. Catie started to think about when she was very young, in north Georgia. It wasn’t all bad, she says. She loved to go outside. She remembers walking in the woods behind their house with her dog and her dad.

But no, she corrects herself. Her dad wasn’t there. It was just her.

Contact enterprise editor Alexandra Zayas at 727-893-8413 or