The tattoo on Malik Filmore's left arm illustrates his attitude and fuels his drive.
With two faces reminiscent of the classic masks associated with drama, the tattoo says, "Laugh Now, Cry Later."
"To me, it's better to laugh through pain," Filmore said. "Crying will just slow you down. I figure with any stress that I have, I'll just laugh through it and keep moving on. And I'll cry about it later."
Filmore's pain stems from his perseverance to succeed as a Hillsborough Community College student even though he's homeless. The stress arises from uncertain finances, a need for a job and a father who has been in and out of his life. He sought help only when despair finally outweighed his determination.
His story sounds similar to the rags to riches tale portrayed on the television show Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, except Filmore doesn't leave Philadelphia to move into a California mansion. He leaves a rough inner-city Philly neighborhood to move in with a father in Tampa who means well but invariably fails.
Filmore, 17, graduated early from Hillsborough High. He enrolled for classes at the HCC Ybor City campus this fall while living with his father at a boarding house.
Unsure about navigating the financial aid system, he applied for a Pell Grant and received $500. He also was granted $190 for books, but that check never arrived.
His father took the grant money and squandered it. Then the father got in a fight at the boarding house and they were thrown out.
He broke away from his dad, spending his first few weeks walking to campus even though he had no books.
"I get more happiness from doing things on my own than having people do for me," Filmore said. "But I had gotten to the point where I had nothing, so the only responsible thing to do was ask for help."
He turned to a counselor at HCC last month who referred him to Bernadine White-King at the county's Homeless Recovery Department. Though she was in the final days of her job after being laid off because of budget cuts, White-King took a personal interest — particularly after other agencies turned Filmore away because he's only 17.
"This has to be a success story," White-King said. "He can be an inspiration to others who have so much more and are doing less, or those who have less and have given up."
A collaborative effort between White-King and HCC officials helped Filmore obtain a student loan. They also went into their own pockets to purchase a bus pass, and found the textbook check. Teachers are giving him a chance to make up work.
Filmore now lives with a friend, but hopes to get his own place. Eventually, he plans to work as a nurse and then go to medical school. But what about other students facing similar challenges?
Times staff writer Donna Winchester reported last week that Florida applications for financial aid rose 29 percent over the last year, the second highest increase in the nation.
HCC officials have created seminars with county social service agencies and the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, but with only one counselor and three full-time academic advisers for the 6,000 Ybor campus students, it can't be proactive.
Filmore says he just wants to own his own home, raise a family and be successful, but I wonder if we're doing enough to help with his quest.
That's all I'm saying.