Nikki Schama is excited about her future. Her dark eyes sparkle just talking about it. Her biggest dream is performing in musical theater in New York City, but this gifted young singer is armed with other plans just in case.
The 17-year-old is wrapping up her junior year at the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School.
"When I turn 18, I want to go the University of Central Florida and major in voice and minor in social work for children," she said.
She foresees other possibilities later on, such as giving voice lessons and saving money to open a studio. "And of course, I will continue singing whenever the opportunity comes up."
Working to fulfill a dream is a new concept for Schama. Most of her young life has been a struggle to survive in an environment offering little hope for the future.
She says her mother never wanted her and her father was in prison. She was passed among several relatives and went into foster care at 13. The teenager moved from foster home to foster home, including two group homes. She described several as abusive.
She spoke of looking at her reflection in the mirror in those days and hating what she saw.
"If my mother didn't want me," she wondered, "who else would?"
At "Value Me," the annual Beth Dillinger Foundation luncheon held recently at the Hilton Carillon Park in St. Petersburg, Nikki Schama shared the challenges of her life with more than 400 guests.
"Do you know what it's like to move 17 times in five years?" she asked the crowd. "Do you know what it's like to be labeled a foster kid? I do."
She then took the microphone and belted out Breakaway, the song popularized by former American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson. In her view, the song fits her own life.
"I just chose to break away from everything that was holding me back," she said. "The Beth Dillinger Foundation helped me break away from all the toxins in my life."
The foundation was created in 2007 by Kay and Bob Dillinger — he is the longtime public defender for Pinellas and Pasco counties — in memory of their daughter, Beth, who took her own life in 2006.
Kay Dillinger is one of two women Schama calls her "angels." Cat Coats, wife of retired Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats, is the other.
"I saw something in Nikki," Coats said. "She was so smart and had no positive influences in her life."
Coats volunteers with the Dillinger Foundation and the PACE Center for Girls in Pinellas Park, an alternative school for troubled girls ages 12 to 18. She met Schama at PACE in 2010 and became her mentor.
"Most of all I was Nikki's friend," she said. "I believed in her."
While positive role models were in short supply for Schama, one did remain with her since early childhood — her older sister Kristin Olson, who now lives in Palm Harbor.
The girls were taken from their parents when Nikki was 8 and Kristin was 12. Kristin remained in the home of the children's maternal grandparents. Nikki did not.
"I was a really bad kid," Schama said. "My dad was in jail, and I did everything I could to get my mother's attention."
It was Kristin who visited Nikki in each of the foster homes. "She kept me going," Schama said of her older sister.
A turning point was enrollment in the PACE Center at 13. Sally Zeh, the school's executive director, praised her strength and endurance.
Zeh also spoke of the importance of community partners to the success of all 55 girls now at the school. The Dillinger Foundation maintains "Beth's Closet," a brightly decorated small room at the school that Kay Dillinger keeps stocked with clothing and personal items. Each girl may select two items a month.
When Coats persuaded an uncooperative Nikki to try on some jeans, a friendship was born.
With the encouragement of staffers at the PACE Center, Schama enrolled in Gibbs High School's arts magnet in the 10th grade, studying music and performance. Musical theater teacher Karen Bail and voice instructor Dawne Eubanks came on board as supporters.
Eubanks notes that Schama came to accept criticism more willingly and learned to stay focused.
"She has softened on the outside as she's gained more confidence," Eubanks said of the young woman who at first acted tough and belligerent.
It took a little village of caring individuals to get her on the right path.
"Nikki needed each one of these stepping stones," Coats said. "She now has the determination and strength that will help her find success."
One day, Schama hopes to reach out to others like herself.
"I want to change the world one child at a time and maybe even teach them to sing along the way," she said.
Schama, who now lives with a Dunedin foster family she sees as kind and supportive, said she would like to be a foster parent someday.
"I'll probably get a kid just like me," she said, "but no child should ever feel they don't have a place or aren't good enough."
Correspondent Elaine Markowitz can be reached at [email protected]