Most school days Derek Poppen meets the morning early. At 5:30 a.m. he ventures out of the bedroom he shares with his girlfriend, Mishelle Ward, and their 2-year-old daughter, Chloey, in his parents' modest home in Wesley Chapel.
"I get a drink — a soda," said Derek, 19. "I get a bottle ready and then it's about time to get Chloey up and get her ready for school."
Occasionally Mishelle, 19, gives the two a lift before she heads off to her job at Toys "R" Us, but typically it's about 6:20 a.m. when the father and daughter head for the bus stop toting a bag with her school stuff, his backpack and Chloey's car seat.
"Then," said Derek, "it's time for a long bus ride."
The two arrive about 7:30 a.m. at Moore-Mickens Education Center in Dade City, where both are enrolled in the school's Cyesis program for expectant students and parents and their children.
Derek, who enrolled a few years ago along with Mishelle, is one of four male students out of a total enrollment of 80. Mishelle graduated in June, and Derek will graduate in June 2009.
His stick-to-it attitude has caught the attention of his teachers, who recently nominated him for the Land O'Lakes Optimist Club's Unsung Hero Award. Tonight the young father will be one of seven central and east Pasco students honored at the Land O'Lakes Community Center.
The award is given to students who have gone above and beyond, said Karen Kirkland, secretary and treasurer of the Optimist Club.
Winners are acknowledged for a variety of qualities, she said, like "Helping others, doing things like tutoring those falling behind, or scholastic-wise, doing whatever it takes to stay in school and graduate. Just someone who is doing an outstanding job and that others look up to."
Even though it wasn't always that way, Derek now fits that bill.
When he was a freshman at Wesley Chapel High, Derek figures he went to school about once a month. Now, a few years later, he's an honor roll student who tutors students with learning disabilities while juggling parenting and a part-time job at Cafe Fresh.
And he's thinking about continuing his education at Pasco-Hernando Community College.
"I realized I can't do much if I don't have my schooling," Derek said. "All my friends and even my brother, they never finished school. That's given me motivation."
"He's just been such a good inspiration and a good role model," said Linda Davis, who oversees the Cyesis program. "He's a very good parent. Sometimes teenage parents don't know how to interact with their children, but he's always good with that."
Chloey is a bright, fair-haired child who's into books and baby dolls big time, and Derek is a frequent visitor in her classroom. Sometimes he hangs around to play in the morning before class or read to his daughter in his soft-spoken fashion. Every day the two eat lunch together in the cafeteria.
"After lunch we play in the commons area," Derek said. "I let her run around so she gets worn down so she can take a nap."
Then it's back to class and the pursuit of that diploma.
"We're so proud of him — extremely proud," said his mom, Marjorie Poppen, who attended the school's honor roll assembly last week along with Derek's dad, John Poppen. "He's done a complete turn-around. He's made some really good choices this year — (and) followed through with everything. It's a parent's dream."
"I never thought that he'd get an award like this — never thought," said Derek's father, as he fought back tears. "He's put up some goals and he's trying to meet them."
"I'm very proud of him," added Mishelle. "I got lucky."
"A lot of people tell me that they can't believe I'm still here with the baby and the mom, because normally that's not the case," Derek said. "But it takes two to tango. It can be tough, but it changed us in a positive way. We were going down the wrong path."
"And I would be mad at myself if I missed something like this," he said, motioning toward Chloey as she turned the pages of The Birthday Book in her classroom. "All in all, it's worth it. To see her laugh. To see her smile."
"I just want to give her a good life."