When her alarm rings at 5:30 a.m., Shaikayla Rowen doesn’t always leap out of bed in her tiny Coral Springs apartment. She has good reason to linger — she has no mother or father hollering at her to get ready for school. At 18, Rowen is on her own.
But it is that aloneness that inspires her to reach from within, get herself out of bed and haul herself to Monarch High School in Coconut Creek to finish her senior year.
“You have to motivate yourself,” she says. “Nobody is telling you to get up and go to school. I have to push myself.”
Sitting in her little living room on a second-hand couch, Rowen flies through her life story quickly. It begins with a drug dealer mother who had little to do with Rowen as she grew up in Ohio with her father. At one point, for a few months Rowen said she was sent to foster care after one of her younger siblings jumped in a bucket of scalding bleached water her father had prepared to mop the floor.
Rowen moved with her father, step-mother and siblings to Fort Lauderdale when she was 14. Two years later, she was removed from the home of her father, who had a drinking problem.
Rowen says her biological mother then tried to obtain custody, but “I didn’t know who she was.” And her mother didn’t take any responsibility for her own actions, she said.
Ultimately Rowen landed at SOS Children’s Villages in Coconut Creek — a group of houses for foster care children. Rowen stayed for about two years — at times rooming with her half-sister. Rowen participated in a program for foster care students across the state who traveled to Tallahassee to lobby on behalf of their peers.
“She is very outspoken,” said Lashonda Cross, an after-care coordinator at SOS. “She is a strong advocate for foster care, for her peers …She is eagerly chasing after her education and making sure she stays on that particular path.”
When she turned 18, Rowen said she was ready to live on her own. SOS helped her find an apartment that she moved into in November.
“I am very independent — do it myself,” she says.
Rowen said she receives $1,256 a month through the state’s Road to Independence program that provides stipends to young adults who have aged out of foster care and remain in school. The stipend covers rent, food and basic household necessities. The state program is administered by ChildNet in Broward.
On Thanksgiving, she contacted her father, who lives in South Florida, and he loaned her his car for the week. She usually has to take three buses to get to school. To get a school bus, Rowen said she would have had to switch high schools when she moved from SOS to her apartment and didn’t want to do that during her senior year. One of the living expenses Rowen could benefit from is a bus pass.
Rowen’s apartment is bare bones: a mattress and boxspring, basic bookshelves and dressers, an incredibly loud microwave, a static-prone TV, a couple of brown couches in the living room. There are few personal touches: a couple of framed photos of her “house sisters” from SOS and an oversized stuffed animal in the corner of her bedroom. But little details show she is trying: her tiny kitchen table is set with red and orange placemats and bright plastic dinnerware she bought at Walmart. There is a patch of white in the corner of the kitchen floor — she says that is from the pest treatment she had to pay for to tackle the roaches she found when she moved in.
Rowen said when she moved into her own apartment “it was kind of scary’’ to deal with making sure she paid multiple bills on time. The key, she says, is staying organized — and turning off the lights when she doesn’t need them. But the list of bills and special expenses — everything from cap and gown to a prom dress — keeps growing.
“Something new every month just comes up and I am trying to save too,” she said.
At school, Rowen is a member of junior ROTC, where she says she learns leadership and character skills and participates in physical training.
Rowen still has some contact with certain family members — she goes to Calvary Chapel on Sundays with one of her half sisters. She appreciates the informal style of the church.
“You don’t have to wear tights and long dresses — you can wear jeans and a shirt,” she said. “You can be yourself.”
Rowen said that she is applying to FAU, FIU and FAMU with an eye toward nursing or criminal justice. Rowen is eligible for a tuition and fee waiver at public colleges and universities.
“I feel positive at this point nothing can really stop me but myself,” she said. “I have to stay motivated and determined.”