LAND O'LAKES — The day starts at 6 a.m. as Virginia Torres and her daughter, Jollissa, get up, get dressed and swallow their breakfasts.
Then Virginia, 17, kisses her baby girl goodbye and boards the bus for Sunlake High School.
Virginia never planned on being a teen mother, of course. She hid the pregnancy as long as she could and dreaded the day she finally told her parents.
But then the unexpected blessings poured forth.
Virginia's mother, Luz Torres, stepped in to raise the baby while nudging Virginia forward in school.
Virginia, who was failing some classes last year, became a driven student earning A's and B's.
And Jollissa Cadence, now 6 months old, filled a void left by a cousin she'll never know.
• • •
Virginia was 16 and scared when she found out she was pregnant. She worried for her baby and had no idea how her parents would react. She kept the secret for months, confiding only in her best friend.
But she couldn't hide the morning sickness.
Luz thought her daughter had a cold and took her to a walk-in clinic a couple of times. When they finally went to the family doctor, Luz learned Virginia was four months pregnant.
Luz erupted in tears. Virginia cried, too, uncertain of what was to come.
But later, when she and her parents sat down to discuss things rationally, things turned out better than Virginia thought.
"I told her that she had to be responsible for the baby, and that I would be there for her, but she has to take the greater responsibility," Luz said.
Virginia's parents agreed to help raise the baby so she could finish school. And things started to click for Virginia: School was no longer a chore. It was her ticket to providing a good life for herself and her child.
• • •
The moment a girl becomes pregnant, the odds are stacked against her. Only 40 percent of the teens who have babies graduate high school, compared to the 75 percent graduation rate among non-student parents, according to the March of Dimes Foundation. And less than 2 percent of the young women who had children before they hit 18 earn a college degree by the time they're 30, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teenage Pregnancy.
Pasco County schools run a program, called Cyesis, to help pregnant teens or teen parents beat the odds. Teachers in the program at Moore-Mickens and Marchman education centers work at a pace the students can handle, and a nurse and child care are available on campus.
"Our basic philosophy is to do whatever it is that the mother and child need, to make sure the mother gets the best quality education until she leaves the public schools," Moore-Mickens principal Steve Cox said.
Over the years, enrollment has remained steady in the program, at roughly 40 girls a year. About two-thirds of them graduate.
Virginia considered the program but decided her best bet was to stay at Sunlake, close to home and her network of support.
"I've heard about the program, and the (baby's) father and I talked about it when I was pregnant, but it didn't seem like the best choice for me," Virginia said. "I'm more comfortable staying here at home with my family and friends. And I don't really trust anyone else with my baby."
• • •
Jollissa Cadence Torres was born Sept. 10, 2009, a healthy 7 pounds 5 ounces, with hazel eyes and a patch of dark blonde hair.
"I was excited, happy. I was cheering, 'Push! Push!' " Luz said. "It was the first time I'd ever seen anybody give birth."
But this wasn't Luz's first grandbaby. Four years earlier, her son Eli and his girlfriend, Crystal Nicholsen, had a baby named Cadence Michelle. Also unplanned. Also a joy.
The young family was riding in a car with two other people on Feb. 11, 2007, when the driver — Crystal's sister, Christa — lost control and rolled into a stand of trees off Interstate 75. Although Cadence was in a car seat, she was ejected from the car. So was Crystal.
The 17-year-old mother and her 18-month-old baby died at the scene. They were laid to rest in the same casket.
The loss had left a terrible hole in Luz's heart. When Virginia became pregnant, Luz wasn't sure she was ready for another grandchild. The feelings were too raw.
Jollissa helped her heal.
"God brought me joy back to my life with her," Luz said.
• • •
Between the birth and the recovery, Virginia missed several weeks of school last semester. But she's back on track now. She's focused in class. She heads straight home after school, where Jollissa greets her with a big smile.
Virginia spends most afternoons and evenings with her baby, except for the two days a week the baby's father has Jollissa. She doesn't get to go out much with her friends. She misses school when her baby is sick or has a doctor's appointment.
"When I first found out about her being pregnant, I told her that she had to stay in school, and that she has to study hard," Luz said. "I told her that if she needs to transfer schools, or be homeschooled, then it's fine, but she has to finish her education. And she has been responsible about it, she studies hard and doesn't go out as much as she used to, only when the father has the baby."
After high school, Virginia plans on going to a state university, such as University of South Florida, to study to become a nurse. She knows it won't be easy handling both her education and daughter, even with help from her parents and Jollissa's father.
"By the time I go to college, my daughter will be at the age where she's rowdy and wants attention, so it will be difficult to juggle both her and college," Virginia said.
But even with the struggles, Virginia said the experience has changed her perspective for the better.
"Now that I'm a mom, I'm more careful with the friends I make because I don't want them to influence (Jollissa) and have her growing up bad," Virginia said. "And I also work harder on schoolwork and want to go to college, while before I didn't worry so much about it.
"I just want to make sure I do the best I can, for my daughter."