It started early for Angela Mizell. • At 15 months, doctors removed a kidney because of cancer. • At age 6, she witnessed a drive-by shooting. She remembers it as one of her first, "grown up" moments. • At age 9, she witnessed the murder of her god-sister. • "She was young and pregnant (at the time) and it's left a horrifying memory to this day," Angela says. • That same year, Angela's older sister was sentenced to prison for six years for murder and her older brother was sentenced to life in prison for killing a police officer. • "All the time I would ask myself, 'Why is this happening to me? Why did God choose this for me?' " Angela asked. "'Am I the only one like this?'" • Through this dark journey, Angela, now 18 and a student at Hillsborough Community College, stands as a model of perseverance. She shared her story at the Corporation to Develop Communities' annual luncheon in October, leaving the room awed and inspired. • She spoke to students at Blake High's Urban Teaching Academy, pushing them to never give up. • "It was inspiring," UTA student Maria Ortiz said. "It showed us that life can be hard and you just have to overcome it all and go straight for what you want."
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Angela spent her formative years living in Atlanta with her mother and her mother's boyfriend as the youngest of eight siblings.
It was anything but ideal as she split time between her mother and the boyfriend and her biological father, enduring the torment of the boyfriend who abused alcohol and crack and took it out on the family — mostly on the youngest.
"When asked about a pair of shoes that I left at my dad's job, my mother's boyfriend punched me square in the face," Angela said.
Gary Mizell, Angela's biological father, tried to make a better life for his youngest. He wanted custody of Angela and her older brother but he didn't want to take a mother away from the other kids.
"On my end, I had the court behind me but I didn't want to cause trouble with her mama (Patricia)," Gary Mizell said.
Angela's mother didn't make it easy.
"She (Patricia) fought him (Gary) every step of the way," Angela said.
The day he gained custody remained burnished in his mind as a rare and happy memory.
"It was like relief and happiness rolled into one," Gary Mizell said. "It was like the day she was born, it was like I finally had my little girl."
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Angela escaped the toxic and abusive situation at her mother's house but the violence she witnessed still haunted her.
"One of my close friends was shot in the head right in front of me," Angela said.
Angela was no stranger to seeing people murdered, but this time the smell and the blood left both a literal and mental stain.
Less than a month later, Angela moved to Tampa with Gary, but the change in locale and living situation didn't prove to be an instant recipe for happiness or recovery. Angela struggled to identify with other kids and with what had happened to her.
"I have maybe a couple friends from high school, they're the only people I talk to that are my age," Angela said.
As a student at Middleton High School, Angela began to find guides to help her in her long, dark journey.
"I remember it seemed like nothing was going right for her," said Lafe Thomas, the senior youth adviser at the CDC of Tampa who grew to become Angela's mentor. "The first time I saw her (Angela) she hung up the phone angry and said something like, 'This always happens to me.' "
Thomas, Angela calls her Miss Lafe, would become a fixture in Mizell's life. Thomas remembers trying the unconventional when reaching out to Mizell.
"I remember she would say, 'Everyone I get close to dies,' " Thomas said. "So I said, 'Okay, I'm outta here.'
"Anything I could do to get her out of that funk, I was going to do it."
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While still dealing with the pressures of high school, Angela found a way to cope with and eventually to heal from her long, dark journey. In 2013, with the help of her father, Thomas and others, Angela become the first of her eight siblings to graduate from high school.
"She has no barriers anymore," Thomas said.
The achievement made the "Wall of Fame" at the Mizells' home in Temple Terrace. The Wall of Fame serves as the current family archive. It has a photo of Angela and her father at a middle school Daddy-Daughter Dance; it has pictures of Angela in her graduation gown.
In time, they will add more pictures of joy. Angela goes to class, works part time at McDonald's, goes fishing with her dad and handles the occasional speaking engagement thanks to Tyrone Keys, executive director of All Sports Community Service and another mentor.
"She lived in an abusive verbal house where her mom and stepdad told her she would never become nothing," said Keys, who is trying to help Angela with her quest for an education. "But despite all of that, she is standing before us today and she is now on her way.
"She asked if she could volunteer with us and she has been sharing her story. She comes over in her McDonald's uniform that she wears with pride while many kids say they will never flip burgers. She is a breath of fresh air."
Beyond public speaking, another type of engagement is on Angela's mind these days. Erwin Moore, a U.S. Marine, proposed to her last month. Moore is currently stationed overseas. Angela might have joined him as a Marine, but having only one kidney excluded her from military service.
Still, that's just a molehill for a young woman who has lived a lifetime in just 18 short years.
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With a career in the military out of the question, Angela has revived a passion for cooking.
"Since the age of 10, I have always been interested in cooking and it became a passion," Angela said. "I want to own my own restaurant someday."
The Mizells cooked steak and potatoes Monday night as Angela used the side of a saucer to tenderize the cuts of sirloin. Dad made sure the oil was the right temperature for the diced potatoes by flicking some water into it.
In the bliss of a warm kitchen, Angela found it easy to remember how pleasant life can be, easy to remember how far they had come. As father and daughter sat down together, the scene emanated comfort and safety — the end of a long night's journey and the beginning of a brighter day.
Andy Warrener can be reached at [email protected]