ST. PETERSBURG — Victor Sims was just 3 months old when the state removed him and two of his siblings from their unstable home and put them in foster care.
For the next 11 years, he bounced from foster home to foster home — eight altogether — before he landed in the home of a loving couple in Winter Haven who eventually adopted him. They provided stability and encouragement through his teenage years, he said.
Now 20, Sims is graduating from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg with a bachelor's degree in psychology and an ambitious goal: He wants to serve in the state House of Representatives.
He filed last month to run as a Democratic candidate in District 39, which covers parts of Polk and Osceola counties.
It's a long shot. Rep. Neil Combee, 56, the Republican incumbent, is a Polk County native who has already served four years in the House, the last two as deputy majority whip.
According to his filings in the state Division of Elections, Combee has raised $53,905 for his campaign and spent $39,114. Sims has reported $1,082 in contributions and $39.50 in expenditures.
Combee, who has never met Sims, doesn't sound worried about his young opponent.
"Well, I'm afraid that this isn't the best district for him to run in," said Combee, 56. "It has a strong history of voting conservative and I don't see that changing any time soon."
But Sims said he is used to challenges. He wants to "break barriers and build futures" in his campaign, he said. "I'm a strong believer in God, and I think God will lead me to where he wants me to go next."
As he moved from foster home to foster home, Sims said, the experience was often difficult.
"The constant moving was a huge problem for me because I would get close to the family and then leave," he said. "It was difficult to go to school and wonder if the caseworker was going to pick you up and tell you that you're no longer a part of that household."
But Sims said he learned from the experience and wants to use it to help others.
"I've lived with a lot of different families being in foster care," he said. "I've seen multiple angles of life. That is something that most candidates don't have."
Sims' life changed when he was placed in the home of Ronald and Violet Sims, who have adopted seven children, including Victor and his biological sister, Victoria.
"I started only wanting two girls," Mrs. Sims said. "I did adopt a girl, but then I asked the caseworker if she had family.."
Raising Victor wasn't easy at first, she said. He was a sensitive child who wept a lot. But after a year he began to open up. The Simses adopted him in 2007.
As he grew up, Mrs. Sims said, Victor proved to be a determined young man who knew what he wanted. That's why she nominated him for the 2013 Outstanding Young Leader award from FosterClub, a national network for foster families. He traveled to Washington to receive it and met with members of Congress and officials in the Department of Education.
"Victor had a drive to do things," Mrs. Sims said. "He liked to help people. He always said that foster children had a bad rep. That people treated foster kids different, and he wanted to change that."
In 2014, Sims graduated from Chain of Lakes Collegiate High School and received an associate degree from Polk State College. While in high school he was student government president, a member of the National Honor Society, and a manager at a McDonald's.
At USF St. Petersburg, Sims has been Mr. USFSP, an officer in student government, and one of 11 university "Ambassadors," student leaders who help with commencement, homecoming and other campus events. He ran unsuccessfully for vice president of student government last year.
This year, he was in professor Judithanne Scourfield McLauchlan's "Road to the White House" class, which spent 10 days in New Hampshire volunteering in presidential campaigns on the eve of the primary there. Sims worked for Hillary Clinton.
Sims was "positive, upbeat, enthusiastic," McLauchlan said. "His enthusiasm is infectious."
Education is a big plank in Sims' platform. "My first thing to tackle is education," he said. "I believe that is one of the most important things to make a society great, and figuring out how to make education available to everyone at an affordable rate."
He said he wants to help foundations like the Head Start Program, which offers education to young children from low-income families and helps prepare youngsters for kindergarten. His mother teaches in the program.
Sims said having a relationship with the community is also important to him. It's something he learned at USFSP.
"Seeing students every single day, you build a relationship with them," he said. "Having relationships with people is what we are missing between politicians and the community. They forget to come back and be a part of that engagement."
Sims knows that his political challenge is daunting. And if he doesn't win?
"I will find another challenge to go for," he said. "I will come after the same seat in 2018."
Devin Rodriguez is a student journalist at USFSP. Reach him at (239) 321-4506.