Rough road to graduation included sleeping on porch, couch surfing

September 8, 2016

TAMPA — Only in hindsight did Yves Luma realize her mother never intended to get on the plane.

Luma was 9. She wore a flowing white summer shirt and baggy jeans that she could grow into. Her mother said they were going to the United States, a land of shining streets and beautiful homes.

On the tarmac at the airport in Haiti, her mother told her to go ahead. Board the plane with the attendant. Her mother would follow behind. Luma found her seat midway down the plane and peered down the aisle waiting for her mother.

Then the door closed and the plane took off.

Luma remembers how odd she must have looked, alone and crying in the crowded plane. She remembers passengers asking her where her parents were. She didn’t know.

Now 18, Luma hasn’t seen her mother since that day.

Her life became about survival.

Sometimes she wondered if she would make it. She slept on a porch or with neighbors. And once, for a week, she slept in her high school locker room.

But on Tuesday, Luma will graduate from Blake High School. In August, she’s headed to Florida State University.

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In Haiti, her life with her mother was unstable. Luma was moved around, but she always knew her mother loved her. In their one-room house, her mother slept on the floor so Luma could have the only bed.

Her mother had made the best griot — chunks of pork marinated in citrus, simmered and slightly charred on the edges.

In America, she met her father for the first time. She moved into a house with three of his other children whose mothers also lived in Haiti. Two other families also lived there. They were poor. There was no air conditioning. Luma slept on the floor, next to bugs and a mouse.

Her father called it the projects. He usually came home late, sometimes not at all.

During one of his absences, neighbors told his children he had flown back to Haiti and married and was bringing his new bride back to live with them.

• • •

Her father made a rule that the children had to come straight home after school and never leave the house.

Luma spoke only Haitian Creole so she worked hard to fit in at school and learn English.

She sang in her church choir and managed to get into Blake High’s choral magnet program, even though she couldn’t get a ride to the audition. Sometimes, the school chorus performed late.

On nights when her father made it home before Luma, no one was allowed to let her in. Luma would sleep on the second-floor porch.

During her junior year at Blake High, she almost gave up. She loved school, but didn’t think college was possible. If she dropped out and got a job, she could get her own place.

Luma landed a job at a beauty salon. She spent more nights on the porch.

Then she decided to leave home. She slept in the locker room at school for about a week before getting caught. Police told her they would have to release her back into her father’s custody. He had reported her as a runaway.

A neighbor let her stay for two days.

It’s called “couch surfing” by those who work with homeless teens. When they don’t see home as an option, teens typically bounce between friends and neighbors.

At this point, Luma reached out to her school social worker.

• • •

The social worker got her an interview with Starting Right, Now — a program that provides housing and training to help homeless and unaccompanied young people finish school.

Since its start in 2007, the program has helped 190 teens get into college, a vocational program or the military. In August, the program will expand to a campus in Pinellas County.

Starting Right, Now founder Vicki Sokolik remembers how Luma tried to get herself kicked out of the program at first.

“She would test us to see if we were going to react like her dad.”

They didn’t. Luma took classes in subjects such as mindfulness, rational living, anger management and Dale Carnegie public speaking.

Like many of the students in the program, she decided to pursue a career helping others. She plans to be a nurse.

Luma has forgiven her father.

“I invited him to my graduation,” she said.

At a recent graduation dinner at Maggiano’s Little Italy, she reflected on her life since entering the program.

“I feel like I’m in control now,” she said. “I feel like my life is what it’s supposed to be.”

Contact Ian Dyer at