The tattoo spirals circling Dante Vega’s neck make up a rose with petals and thorns.
It seems to speak to the conflicts and contradictions in his life. After spending his early teenage years smoking marijuana and stealing liquor from his blind grandmother, Dante, 17, landed at Here’s Help, a residential treatment center for troubled youth in Opa-locka.
More than two months in the residential treatment program, and well on his way to getting his GED, he realizes his past mistakes – and the consequences.
“I was moving too fast,” he said.
Dante cracks a smile when he describes certain tattoos, like that of his sister’s name, Jackie, on his stomach. His neck tattoo translates into his grandmother’s name - Rosa - in Spanish. But he clenches up when he talks about the others. The soft-spoken teenager has been through the wringer.
His father died when he was 5 years old. His mom is an alcoholic. He can no longer live with his grandmother because authorities are “skeptical” of her care. And his younger siblings, Nikki, 4, Irene, 6 and Odessa, 8, live in a temporary shelter for neglected children in Miami.
Money is tight too. In Dante’s dorm room at Here’s Help, his side of the room is bare. White sheets, white shirts and an out of place, colorful painting. He is one credit away from catching up in school. His grades are good. And he still gets to go to Homestead on weekends to see his grandmother. He also visits the shelter every Friday, sometimes with his mother and stepfather, to see his siblings.
His sisters are happy when he’s there, but start crying when he has to leave. “‘Oh no, I don’t want to go back, how come you have to leave and we have to stay here,’” Dante said, describing the painful visits to the shelter. “They ask me questions like that and I don’t know what to say.”
After finishing his GED, Dante hopes to continue pursuing art and he plans to take culinary classes at Robert Morgan Educational Center, a Miami-Dade County public school with vocational programs.
Steve Appelbaum, one of the Here’s Help administrators who recommended Dante for Wish Book, lights up when he talks about opportunities for Dante. The young man needs a laptop for drawing, any art/culinary opportunities and a gift card for new clothes, which would further set him on the path to success.
“If you’re good, and you’re responsible, there’s always something out there for you,” Appelbaum said.
Dante draws roses in art class to honor his grandmother. In one particular picture, red roses are centered on the page, while colorless ones line the corners.
“It draws attention to the center,” he said.
He appreciates his grandmother more these days, helping her pay bills and do chores around the house. Rosa talked with excitement in her voice about Dante’s maturity.
“He’s much more calm,” she said.
Dante even cooks with his grandmother. Well, kind of. He said that Rosa does not measure ingredients, but rather, throws items into a cooking pot.
“She teaches me by example,” he said, recalling a Cuban rice dish.
His past has become a part of his life experience. Every morning, Dante meets with Here’s Help CEO John “Footy” Kross. The one-time popular Y-100 Miami talk show host retired from the station in 2006, but his radio voice is as clear as ever when he speaks to the group.
Kross talks football, discipline, even women with the guys. He is frank when he tells them not to screw up. When Kross asked Dante what will be the biggest challenge after he leaves the program, Dante didn’t hesitate.
“Temptation,” he said.
Still, Kross believes all the elements for success are there for Dante, who he calls a “good guy.” Success, Kross says, is like a sandwich, with bologna, mustard and bread.
“You just got to make the sandwich,” Kross said.