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Class of 2018: TBT's Anita Morgan rises above abuse to thrive

Anita Morgan, 19, is graduating from Tampa Bay Tech High this month, the first in her family to get a high school diploma. Morgan, who is heading to the University of the Ozarks in Arkansas in the fall, had to overcome an extreme amount of hardship throughout her life and has been helped a great deal the past couple of years by the Starting Right, Now program. SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times
Published May 18, 2018

TAMPA — For those who fear there is no hope, or help, or heart left in this world, there is the story of Anita Morgan.

There are any number of life-wrenching places to begin …

In the middle of the night, in the back of a police car, cruising over the bridge toward Clearwater, holding the hand of her sister, Breannea, returning to the foster care system with tears pouring out — 12 years old in 2011.

A few hours earlier, two police officers appeared in the doorway of the Morgans' apartment.

At the officers' request, Anita walked them through the rooms, showing and telling the places and moments where her biological father fondled, beat, raped and forced her to sit on her knees for hours when she didn't comply to his wishes.

Where to turn? Her mother, Michelle, had died from cancer two months earlier at 41. Breannea — the one who finally called the police after their father increased the abuse following her mother's death — was only 13. The girls' two older siblings were struggling on their own, often "running the streets."

In Morgan's memory, her father's screams echoed as they cuffed and bent him into the back of another police car: "Please don't take me!"

She felt tremendous guilt.

"I kept thinking, over and over, that it was my fault that we were going back into 'the system.'?" she said. "I thought my younger brother (Jahien Morgan, who is two years younger) doesn't know why he was taken away all of the sudden (to a different home from Anita and Breannea). I kept thinking Jahien is blaming me for it. He doesn't understand. Now both my parents were gone. I was just a kid. I was lost."

A few days ago, Morgan sat inside the place she has called home the past few years, the Starting Right, Now residence in South Tampa — a place for 40 other teens overcoming similar hardships — and Morgan tells her story with direct, dark eyes, steadily turning every detail to the light for the world to see.

"I used to think I was alone but now I know I'm not the only one," she said. "Telling my story might help someone else realize they are not alone."

She talks on. She gazes out the window and into a courtroom in 2016. An attorney says, "point to the man who did this to you." She is shaking, she can't breathe, she has to stop. The judge calls a recess. She collects herself, comes back in and points at her father.

He is sentenced to 26 years in prison for abusing Anita and her siblings.

Through it all, she went to school, and to church and she asked God, "Why are you doing this to me? Is this a test? Why me?"

Many times she relayed her daily trials to her pastor and to a teacher at her school, a couple that happened to be married: Dr. Philetha Tucker Johnson and Adrian Johnson, the boys' basketball coach at Tampa Bay Tech.

"I listened," said Adrian Johnson, who has taught more than 30 years. "I wanted to help."

Johnson talked to the school psychologist and she contacted the founder of Starting Right, Now, Vicki Sokolik, who through "SRN" has helped almost 300 teens turn their lives around in the past 11 years.

Sokolik had Morgan talk with therapists and introduced Morgan to her mentor, south Tampa's Teri Castillo, another person who "just wanted to help." Sokolik laid down the many laws, including going to school "every single day," which involved catching a bus at 5 a.m. Morgan did it all.

This month, Morgan will receive a diploma from Tampa Bay Tech, making her the first in her family to graduate from high school. In the fall, Morgan will begin college at the University of the Ozarks in Arkansas. She says she wants to become a social worker, to help others like those who helped her.

Scared? Yes. Hopeful? Yes.

"I want to break the cycle that my family was in," said Morgan, who now has her brother, Jahien, in the SRN program.

The other day, out of the blue, Sokolik received a text from Morgan, a simple message that swelled Sokolik's heart.

Morgan's words: "I have never been so happy."

Contact Scott Purks at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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