Twelve year-old Tiana Whittaker recalls standing under an early spring rain outside her apartment building on South Beach, watching as her family’s possessions were piled up on the curb: the couch, mattresses, toys and the few worldly belongings the family had accumulated after it moved from Georgia.
Mom Felicia held Tiana’s infant brother on her shoulder, trying to shield him from the rain. They waited for what seemed like an eternity until a white van pulled up.
“Are we being kidnapped?” brother Glasco asked.
The van whisked away the family of five, putting them up in a hotel until a space could be made at Chapman Shelter in downtown Miami. Over the next few months, Tiana would miss 11 days of school as the family adjusted to life in the shelter.
Felicia, Tiana and brothers Whittaker, 8, Glasco, 7, and Gabriel, 1 month, lived in one room with two bunk beds, their clothes and school supplies in an assigned locker. They were penniless, Tiana’s father was no longer in the picture, and they had no idea what the future held. But the most important thing for Tiana was that her mother had kept them all together.
“She’s my hero,” says Tiana. “No matter what, she hasn’t given up on us. At the shelter you see all these mothers who have left their children somewhere, and my mom, she didn’t leave me. She’s still with us, no matter what.”
It’s been about eight months since that night in South Beach. Tiana and her family are in a transitional apartment in Homestead with much more room for her 7- and 8-year-old brothers to spread out and a desk at which Tiana can do her homework.
Throughout the ordeal, the seventh-grader maintained As and Bs, making the principal’s honor roll at Redland Elementary and the Redland Hall of Fame, an honor bestowed to top students during interim assessments. She also qualified for Breakthrough Miami, a program that provides support to top performing low-income students from the fourth grade until they graduate high school and become college-bound. Whittaker also qualified for the program. Tiana is also a member of the Future Farmers of America Club and she tutors sixth- and seventh-graders after school. Her extra curricular activities keep her at school until 7 p.m.
“What really drew me to Tiana was that in midst of all that she has endured, she’s so resilient,” says Nina Govea of Fresh Start Family Services, the truancy counselor assigned to Tiana’s case when she started missing school. “She’s so eloquent and the way she carries herself is amazing. She loves to help people, she’s not a victim. She is goal-oriented and ready to take over the world.”
With red wire-framed glasses perched at the end of her nose, her curly hair in a high pony tail, Tiana answers questions in such a way that it is evident she is accustomed to being interviewed by adults, probed for fissures in the self-confident air that she exudes. None are forthcoming.
The only thing that will cause her to lose her composure is a slip in her grades. “I’ll have a meltdown if I get a C,” she admits. “Kids out there who think their lives are hard when they have a house, they have a car, their mom or dad has a job and they don’t do their schoolwork and they get into all sorts of trouble — when I’m here and, it’s not the best life, but I’m still alive, I have food on my table and I still do what I have to do in school.”
Tiana’s ultimate dream is for her family to have “a second chance in this world.” She wishes for a place to call home, a steady income for her mother, daycare for her baby brother.
What would help the Whittakers is monetary support during this transitional period. The family would benefit from $2,500, which could be used for daycare as Felicia continues her job search and for basic needs as she struggles to stabilize. The money would help the family when it has to move from transitional housing.
Most importantly, Tiana would like money for her college education.
“I tell them to look at my life and what I’ve been through,” says Felicia, who has her GED but deferred her dreams of going to college to raise her family. “I don’t want you to go through that. I want you to go to school, focus on your career, that way you’re not homeless and that way you’re not going through this with your children.”
In spite of all the hardships, Tiana credits her mother for her achievements. “I’m always pushing myself to move forward, and I know she’s right behind me.”