Homeless sisters, one at Armwood, help each another stay in school

June 3, 2016

SEFFNER — When the school bell rang, Kemari Hayes sprinted home so her classmates wouldn’t find out where she lived.

Home was a room at a motel, just off Interstate 4.

Inside, Kemari, then 15, closed the door, locking out the crime that she see through the window.

She did her homework and watched SpongeBob SquarePants.

Kemari and her two older sisters were dropped off at the motel and lived there for eight months. The sisters were everything to each other. They knew education was the best hope to escape their plight, but they almost gave up on it.

Today, Hayes graduates from Armwood High School. She earned admission into Saint Leo University and starts in August. Her sisters are attending Hills­borough Community College. In her college essay, Hayes, now 18, shared the story of how they made it out.

“I want to show others that no matter where you come from or what your situation is,” Hayes wrote, “you can achieve anything you set your mind to.”

• • •

Before the sisters came to the motel, Hayes recalls hearing her mother arguing with the landlord. They were on their way to their fourth eviction that year.

While her sisters worked, Kemari would look out the motel window now and then and see people snorting cocaine. Women lurked by the road, waiting for a car to approach.

The motel room was small and cluttered, infested with roaches and reeking of mildew.

Still, she was afraid to open the door.

At night, she lay on a futon staring at ceiling tiles and thinking about her mother and her sisters.

She felt trapped, she said.

Keonni, the oldest at 19, dropped out of school to work so her sisters could stay in school. But they soon discovered her Walmart paycheck wouldn’t cover much more than the cost of the motel room, which was more than $800 a month. That meant Ke-Erica, 17, needed to work so they could eat. She got a job at a fast-food restaurant.

With no stove and a tiny refrigerator, they lived on Ramen noodles and the dollar menu at another nearby fast-food restaurant.

They didn’t have a car, and buses didn’t run late enough to get them home. Every night, Kemari waited up until 3 a.m. for her sisters, who had to navigate the danger she saw from the window.

• • •

There are hundreds of homeless teens in local high schools, say those who work with them.

Eventually Ke-Erica, the middle sister, grew stressed and told a friend, who told a school social worker.

The social worker connected them with Starting Right, Now, a program that helps homeless teens complete their educations.

So far, the program has helped 190 teens get into college, a vocational program or the military.

The sisters didn’t have many options, but they made one demand of Starting Right, Now: They must stay together.

Vicki Sokolik, founder and executive director, remembers how guarded Kemari was at first.

“She was like a hot kettle,” Sokolik said.

“I hated everyone,” Kemari said.

She wanted her space.

Kemari didn’t want to enter the program, but her sisters were adamant. They saw it as their only choice. In her first speech as part of the program’s mandatory Dale Carnegie public speaking classes, Kemari walked to the podium and said the word “shoelaces” then sat down.

A staff member wondered if she was autistic. Sokolik was sure she was just stubborn. She was confident Kemari would learn to trust them.

One day, Kemari excitedly told everyone her mom was coming to visit for her birthday. When the day arrived, Kemari’s mother didn’t show. Things come up, Sokolik told Kemari.

So the two went to get pedicures and made cookies together. After that, Kemari began to open up.

“She realized I was someone who wasn’t going to just leave her life,” Sokolik said.

“You’re stuck with me,” she told Kemari.

• • •

At a recent graduation dinner at Maggiano’s Little Italy, Kemari celebrated with 12 other students in Starting Right, Now, who are graduating from high schools across the county. They laughed at a slideshow of their time together. Each student and mentor talked about the journey together.

Kemari had wanted to parachute from a plane with her mentor, Sharon Watson. Watson laughed and told her she would watch from the ground. Their relationship had evolved to a deep bond.

“I know you’re going to take all these blessings that you were given, and you’re going to give back,” Watson said. “Because you have what it takes to reach out and do the same things that were done for you.”

Contact Ian Dyer at hillsnews@tampabay.com.