OLD SEMINOLE HEIGHTS — No one knew about the note on the kitchen whiteboard: Valerie, I got arrested. Take care of yourself. I'll try to get home as soon as I can.
It was Oct. 15, 2007. Valerie Perez had turned 18 a month and a day earlier.
Her mother had been arrested — again. Valerie put her homework aside and organized her thoughts. She would need a job, food stamps, money to pay the light bill.
This time, she figured, she could make it, on her own.
Things were always so much simpler for her in the International Baccalaureate program at Hillsborough High School.
She graduates this week, but just a handful of the 2,083 students there know how she has managed the past few years. Life has always seemed so much more stable for them.
"I don't talk about it. They wouldn't understand," she said. They don't know about nights she studied by candlelight when the power was cut. The three months she and her mom lived in a rented maroon Dodge Stratus when she was in ninth grade.
"I just want to be my age," she said.
She never invites friends over. Her home is too different. It always has been.
To save money, she unplugs the TV and microwave when she's not using them and keeps her lights off most of the time.
She budgets her $169 in food stamps each month on white rice and chicken or pork. She cooks for herself. In January, she got a job at Bath & Body Works, earning about $50 a week. She got bus passes with help from the district's Homeless Education and Literacy Project.
She caught the school bus at 6 a.m. and ate free lunches.
Her teachers rallied her with support. "We believed in Valerie," said assistant principal Donna Scheirer. "She didn't get very many breaks for a kid. I give her a lot of credit for sticking with it in the face of adversity. How many kids do you meet like that?"
Now that she has graduated, she needs a second job to turn her phone back on.
She has filled out applications but hasn't heard back from employers — maybe because her phone got disconnected.
She lived on her own until February, when her 23-year-old sister, Pamela Perez, knocked on the door in the middle of the night with her children and no where to go. Valerie took them in.
Now, she is charged with caring for her nephew and nieces in the apartment, while her sister works. Michael Gonzalez, 3, is splashing water from the tub.
"Mikito! Para de tirar el agua!"
"I have always been the one to do the work," she said. "I'm a nerd."
Valerie was at Orange Grove Middle School when her mother became mentally ill, she said. The mother had panic attacks and got fired from her job. Valerie hid in her room with music from heavy metal bands Linkin Park, Slipknot and Korn. She wrote poetry that she shows no one. She started taking pictures of her surroundings. She started to think college was her way out. She made straight A's through middle school. In high school, IB seemed like the best route.
Halfway into her freshman year, they lost their apartment. Through the winter, they were homeless, parking in shopping center lots overnight, begging shelter on the coldest nights.
They got public housing in South Tampa and things looked up, even when they went without electricity three weeks.
Sometimes, Valerie had to study late. "Go to sleep," her mother told her. "Rest your brain," she'd say. "She tried," Valerie said. "I can't blame her for trying."
The day of Valerie's induction into IB, her mother got arrested for aggravated stalking.
Then 16, Valerie went to live with her father in Texas. She got into an IB program there but missed Tampa.
At the end of the school year — her mother freed — Valerie moved back to Tampa and held on for her 18th birthday. As an adult, she could apply for food stamps. She could stay in the rent-free housing.
The day she came home to the note on the whiteboard, she was ready. Her mother spent 50 days in jail for violating probation.
Life was foreboding. "You know something bad is going to happen. You're expecting it. Something is going to happen."
Another arrest came Jan. 8 for another probation violation. "I was so mad," Valerie said. When her mother was picked up, she was watching Valerie's nephew, Michael, who was taken into state care. It was up to Valerie to get him out.
Mom is still in jail, awaiting sentencing. She declined to be interviewed for this story. In August, Valerie will go to the University of Central Florida on scholarships for a photography degree. She can't wait to leave.
"I'd like to be my own person and venture out," she said. "Keep your drama over in Tampa."
She dreams of better things. Stability. Security.
She is done ferrying cans of beans and corn on the school bus from a food pantry.
She used to tell classmates she was collecting.
Now she doesn't care if they know.
Elisabeth Dyer can be reached at [email protected] or 226-3321.