Miss Teen America finds freedom, for a day

FLORAL CITY — Before she finished her reign, before she moved out of her mom's house to start college, the beauty queen wanted to go camping.

Eleana Frangedis, 18, lives in an eight-bedroom house in a gated community on the water in Tarpon Springs. She had never hiked or chopped wood or gone more than a day without washing her hair.

But in March, in her role as Miss Teen America, she had spent an afternoon at a wilderness camp for troubled girls. She had planned to tell the girls at Camp E-Nini-Hassee they could be anything they wanted to be. Instead, they had inspired her with their stories of survival.

In their thank-you letters, they invited her back for a week. She wanted to prove she was strong, that she could make it in the woods, like them.

Eleana's mother said she wouldn't be able to handle it. Besides, her mom said, why would you want to do that?

Finally, Eleana's mom relented. She could go for one night.

So on a drizzly Tuesday in April, Eleana packed a backpack with shampoo and conditioner, jeans and bug spray, and new shorts from T.J. Maxx. Usually, it takes her three hours to get ready, but that morning, she was out the door in less than an hour. No jewelry, no makeup, no curling iron. This time, she left her satin sash at home.

• • •

The drive to rural Citrus County took almost two hours.

It was morning, but the forest was dark. Only small squares of sunlight seeped through the live oaks. The camp director led Eleana up sand hills, around a grove of palmettos. The forecast called for rain.

"If it gets really bad, do the girls still sleep outside?" Eleana asked.

"Oh, yes," said director Jo Lynn Smith. "Come on, we still have a ways to go. The girls here walk more than 3 miles a day."

E-Nini-Hassee means "her sunny road." The 840-acre camp opened in 1969, the first therapeutic outdoor program for girls in the Southeast. More than 10,000 at-risk teenagers have stayed there, for six months to two years. It is run by a nonprofit called Eckerd that is dedicated to helping kids and families.

The girls' quarters are deep in the woods.

They arrive with a host of issues: addiction, defiance, anger management problems. Some are runaways, some suicidal. About half come from foster care. Others are sent by parents, who pay up to $225 a day.

The girls eat in an air-conditioned dining hall, but they're mostly outside — building lean-tos and working rope courses, chopping trees and reading Maya Angelou, setting goals, talking through their problems.

They don't have TV or Internet. Cellphones are forbidden. Eleana had already surrendered hers.

"How often can the girls call their parents?" she asked the director.

"Once a month."

Eleana had never gone more than a day without talking to her mom.

• • •

In a clearing rimmed with tall pines, a dozen girls were sitting cross-legged in a circle.

"Okay, Cliff Dwellers. This is Eleana. She's going to stay with you," Smith said. "This time, she's going to be a camper too."

The girls opened their circle, making room for one more.

As they went around introducing themselves — age, hometown, how long they had been there — Eleana wondered what had brought them here.

Many of the girls had scars running up their wrists. One had a constellation of cigarette burns on her right arm. Another kept picking her acne. The oldest, 16, had been beaten by her cocaine dealer; she had been there six months. The youngest, 11, kept back-talking to her mom, and had been there six days.

They came from all over Florida, and from as far as New Orleans. Black, white, Hispanic, mixed. Some got food stamps. Some had housekeepers.

Out here, in the woods, they were all Cliff Dwellers.

"Okay, I'm Eleana, I'm 18, and I'm Miss Teen America," she said when it was her turn. "I was a little intimidated when I came last time, but I got your notes, and they made me cry, and now I'm really excited to be here."

Counselor Bethany Richards, 28, went over the schedule: Clean camp, clear trails, get lunch. Haul supplies, birthday fun, guitar practice. Shower, dinner, powwow. Lights out by 9.

"That's not so bad," Eleana told the girl next to her. "My stepdad has to get up early — he's a doctor. So at my house we're not allowed to talk above a whisper after 8 p.m."

• • •

During cleaning time, the girls showed Eleana around. The washup was a shed with 12 tubes of toothpaste strung around a spigot. The open-air bunks were covered by tarps, the beds swathed in cones of white netting, gauzy clouds that seemed to breathe in the breeze.

"Did they tell you about the skeeters? And the coyotes?" asked the 11-year-old. "You can hear 'em howling all night."

Eleana swallowed, tried to smile. "As long as I don't wake up with a spider on my face."

The little girl showed Eleana how to use a broom handle to knock bugs off the tarp. "This is where the watchman sits all night," she said, pointing at a stool. "They take our shoes, so we can't run away."

One other thing, the girl said. "If you have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, you have to go in a bucket."

"A real bucket?"

They were scrubbing bird poo off a railing when the girl noticed Eleana's sparkly silver manicure. She squealed, "Oooh, I love your nails! Are they real?" She wanted to know how Eleana got to be Miss Teen America. "I mean, are you, like, famous?"

Eleana was 14 when she saw the Miss Universe pageant and decided she wanted to be a beauty queen. When she was 17, her mom found the website for Miss Teen America, a for-profit pageant. Florida didn't have a competition, so Eleana mailed a head shot and statement to the national director, touting youth empowerment and antibullying as her platforms, and the director interviewed her by Skype.

That was it. Her sash and crown came in the mail. Last spring, Eleana and her family flew to Tennessee, where she represented the Sunshine State — and won the national competition. Plus a scholarship of up to $10,000. The pageant wasn't televised, but someone put clips on YouTube.

"What did you do for talent?" asked the little girl.

"There wasn't any talent."

"You mean you just had to look pretty?"

• • •

Just then, counselor Bethany called a huddle. Two girls were fighting over a branch cutter.

"I don't like it when you argue," sobbed the girl who kept picking at her face. "It reminds me of home."

They all stood in a circle, kicking the sand, while the counselor tried to help them patch their problems. It took a half-hour because one girl was sulking and refused to say what was wrong.

"Sometimes these things go on for hours," the oldest girl whispered to Eleana. "The longest huddle ever lasted until 3 a.m."

Eleana gasped.

"It helps, though, to really talk things through," said the oldest girl.

"Yeah," agreed Eleana. "We don't ever have time to do that at home."

Lunch was served family-style around big, square tables in the mess hall: salad, a sweet potato and hard-boiled egg. For dessert, each girl got 15 grapes.

Eleana asked them about school. They do math and science in the morning, or sometimes reading groups. In the afternoons, they have music and crafts. There is little downtime, no chance to be alone.

In the afternoon, after hauling supplies, everyone gathered for a celebration. It was the sulky girl's 16th birthday, and the counselors had agreed to let the campers sing karaoke.

In the high-ceilinged room, papered with posters of Queen Victoria and Wilma Rudolph, the campers sang songs by Taylor Swift. When someone put on the anthem from The Little Mermaid, Eleana joined in. "Out of the sea, wish I could be, part of their world . . ."

"You know, it's really nice to be with girls my age who are just doing regular stuff," Eleana told the oldest girl while they ate cake. "I mean, I don't really have any friends; they all kind of chiseled away, or I had to pull away because they were leading me down the wrong path. I feel like I missed all that teenage stuff, just hanging out and sharing."

Girls had bullied her in elementary school, she said. She had gone to two middle schools and three high schools. This year, she had been doing her senior classes alone via virtual school while she made appearances.

"I wish I had a senior prom. I keep seeing all the girls from other schools on Facebook in their new dresses," Eleana said. "I won't have a graduation. I guess they'll mail me my diploma."

The oldest girl asked about Eleana's parents. Eleana's relationship with her father was so strained that they hadn't spoken in a year. Just the day before, she had gone to court, dropped his last name and taken her mother's maiden name, Loulourgas.

Eleana told her campmate, "They split up when I was 2, but I've always been caught in their divorce. They have been to court 160 times."

The girl who had been beaten by a drug dealer shook her head and said, "That must be so hard."

• • •

That night they gathered near their bunks for the powwow. It was drizzling. A few pale stars pinpricked the black sky.

"You know, it's actually kind of nice not having my phone," Eleana told the oldest girl as they sat cross-legged on the platform.

"I'm proud of you for coming to camp with us," said the girl.

"Thanks for letting me," said Eleana. "I've never really had a slumber party."

Soon a counselor collected all the girls' shoes, hugged each camper and turned off the lanterns. The oldest girl helped Eleana string the mosquito netting above her bed.

Long after everyone else fell asleep, Eleana lay staring at the dark, listening to insects and an owl, wind ruffling the branches. Deep in the woods, under constant guard with no chance of getting away, she felt free.

• • •

During powwow the next morning, each girl planted a stick in the fire and announced her goal for the day: Build each other up, listen and don't judge, take responsibility for your actions.

"My goal," said Eleana, "is to make this the best day possible."

The girls gave her work gloves, taught her how to chop wood, shave the bark for kindling, clean the fire pit. In the afternoon, to release some tension, the counselors led the girls in a round of silly sounds and dance moves.

Eleana squawked and flapped her arms like a crow. "It's so awesome to get to be goofy," she said, laughing. "I mean, how often do you get to just let go and not care what people think?"

She looked younger now, with no makeup to cover her freckles, her green eyes aglow without liner.

"Can you braid my hair like yours?" a girl asked when they took a break.

"Of course!" said Eleana, pulling the rubber band from her own French braid. "Here, sit down in front of me. You're going to look so cute."

They had to get permission to touch each other. Soon, half of the Cliff Dwellers had beauty queen braids.

• • •

The youngest girl asked if she could hug Eleana goodbye, then everyone piled around her. "I had a blast spending time with you all. I grew here," said Eleana. "Thank you. I never really had a group of girlfriends. Or even really just one."

On the way back up the hill, counselor Bethany dropped back to walk beside Eleana. "What about before you were Miss Teen? Did you have friends then, when you were just you?"

Eleana shook her head. She had people she hung out with, but she and her mother agreed they weren't good for her. "I had to learn to distance myself."

In the parking lot, someone offered to give Eleana her phone back.

Eleana's smile faded. "I don't really want it back. Not just yet," she said. "I don't really want to go home. Can't I just stay here?"

• • •

Some of the stories Eleana told at camp left me wondering. Was she really as lonely as she seemed? Why had she gone to so many different schools? And what had her parents been fighting about in court for 16 years?

I drove to the courthouse and asked for the divorce file. It turned out to be 13 folders thick. It describes a divorce that was finalized in 1997 but never really finalized at all.

Eleana's parents fought about who would pay for her horseback riding lessons and where she would go to school. The court had established "divorce rules" to display in both houses, times Dad could call, places he had to drop off Eleana. Each side accused the other of contempt of court.

I went to see Michael Frangedis, 49, at his home in Safety Harbor. He hasn't seen Eleana since he moved in a year ago. The bookshelf in the living room is crowded with silver-framed pictures of her. In a bedroom Eleana has never seen, he displays the construction paper cards she designed for him, the scrapbooks they made together, her first tiara from when she was Miss Greek Independence 2011.

Frangedis hopes to write a book. He says he'll call it Total Control, with a subtitle about the damage done to kids in divorces.

"I just try every way I can to reach out to my kid," he said. "All I want is to have her back in my life again."

Emilia Giannakopoulos, Eleana's mom, agreed to meet me at a restaurant in Clearwater, near her office.

She runs her father's plastics company and her new husband's neurosurgery practice and has two school-aged kids, plus Eleana.

"I'm very busy," she said when we met. "I have 45 minutes. You're lucky I got away at all."

I started by asking her to spell her name. Then I asked her age.

"How dare you!" she said. "And you, a woman!"

While I stammered to explain, Eleana arrived. Her mother hadn't said she was coming. Eleana looked confused about the tension in the air.

"So what did you think of Eleana staying out in the woods?" I asked, trying to move on.

"I wasn't thrilled with her going there," said Eleana's mother — who is 41, according to the divorce file. "She wanted to stay for five days, but no way would I allow that."

And what about sleeping outside? With only a bucket for a bathroom?

"What bucket?" asked her mother. She looked at Eleana, then back at me. "I was traveling," she said. "I didn't have time to talk to her."

She told some of her story: After the divorce, she went back to school even though she was raising a 2-year-old. "And I graduated from USF with honors."

What was Eleana like as a child? I asked. What did she want to be when she grew up?

Her mother looked annoyed. "I was too busy to remember what she wanted to be."

The bullying began in elementary school, said Eleana's mother. "All those mean girls, she came home crying a lot." She enrolled Eleana in private school, paid for it all, "since her father wouldn't." (He says he couldn't afford to.)

Eleana's mom said she did all she could to shelter her daughter during the divorce. But Eleana must have been affected, I said, what with rules about where she had to stay and for how long …

"This is not about my divorce," Eleana's mother said. "If I had known you were going to ask me all this, I never would have agreed to talk to you."

I said I just wanted to know how the divorce affected Eleana.

Her mother didn't think it was relevant. Turning to Eleana, she said something angrily in Greek. Eleana stared at her lap, trying not to cry.

Finally, Eleana looked at her mother and said softly, "The divorce was hard on me."

"No it wasn't," said her mother. "It was not."

• • •

All spring, Eleana had been counting down the days. When I called her after lunch, she already knew the numbers.

Forty days until she hands her crown to the new Miss Teen America.

Thirty-one days until she moves out of her mother's house.

Thirty-two days until she starts college.

Eleana wanted to live in a dorm at Florida Atlantic University, to have girlfriends and slumber parties. Instead, her mother got her an apartment in Boca Raton.

So that when she comes to visit, she can stay with Eleana.

Lane DeGregory can be reached at ldegregory@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8825. Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.



Miss Teen America finds freedom, for a day 07/03/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 17, 2013 2:17pm]

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