HOPE-fund recipient receives essentials necessary to live, learn

Spinnaker

by Amanda Billy and Michelle Carranza
UNF Journalism Students

Victoria Vail sat cross-legged on the zebra-striped bed in her hot pink room and smiled as she sang Mariah Carey’s “Through the Rain.”

“Every time I feel afraid,” Vail sang, “I hold tighter to my faith, and I live one more day, and I make it through the rain.”

Although Vail is only 18 years old, she’s already made it through a lot of rain.

After her family disintegrated in 2007, Vail became homeless for almost two years, but is now working to create a more stable life, one in which she can help other teenagers the same way she was helped.

Supported by an organization that’s given her a place to live and help in becoming self sufficient, Vail is studying at Florida State College of Jacksonville, paid for by a scholarship.

When she’s not in class, she’s working, making about $600 a month by putting in 28 to 30 hours a week at a Chick-fil-A restaurant. She follows a detailed budget, hoping to save enough to move into her own apartment in June.

After finishing her associate’s degree, she wants to transfer to the University of Central Florida and major in business administration and sociology.

Vail planned to take five classes in the spring, spread out amongst FSCJ’s campuses to fit into her work schedule. When she registered for the classes, she was borrowing a car, but recently had to give it back, throwing a wrench into her plans: Waking up at 5 a.m. to catch a bus works now, but public transportation won’t be feasible when classes start.

She’s still trying to figure out how to adjust her plans.

Vail knows next semester will be difficult, but she’s ready for the challenge, she said.

“I have to be strong for myself,” she said, something at which she’s had lots of practice.

Vail grew up living with her mom, stepfather and three of her siblings. When her stepfather and mother split in 2007, things started to fall apart.

While the youngest child stayed with his father, Vail’s mother took the then-17-year-old girl, her twin brother and her younger sister and moved from motel to motel in Yulee. Although the mother worked as a cashier, she couldn’t afford rent, and Vail and her siblings started working to help.

Vail had always been an honor roll student, but her grades slipped her junior year of high school when she missed a month and a half of classes.

“I wasn’t going to school because I felt like I needed to help my family,” Vail said.

As the family’s life changed, Vail’s relationship with her mother became more strained, something Vail struggles to understand. The two had had been very close, with Vail’s mother urging her daughter to succeed.

“She always told me that she wanted me to be the best that I could be,” Vail said.

But then she just stopped caring, losing interest in her children’s lives, not noticing what time they came home, she said.

“She was so strong,” Vail said. “It was just like she gave up.”

That’s when the teenager decided to leave.

“I just really didn’t want to be like my mom,” she said. “I wanted to be different.”

But Vail wasn’t sure where to turn.

Her biological father had never been a part of her life. Although she intended to find him when she turned 18, she never got the chance: He committed suicide during Vail’s junior year, and the only time she would ever see him was at his funeral.

So she bounced around friends’ houses for a few months before moving in with a friend’s family, paying $300 a month to sleep on the floor in a bedroom with her friend and her friend’s baby.

Vail worked constantly to afford rent and other necessities. She also worked to pull her grades up.

By the time she graduated Yulee High School in May, Vail had made dramatic improvements academically, earning a Presidential Education Award for Outstanding Academic Achievement.

Her family did not attend the ceremony.

Two people who did see Vail pick up her diploma were staff members of daniel Memorial Inc., a Jacksonville nonprofit agency that helps homeless teenagers become economically independent. A counselor at Vail’s high school contacted them.

Vail moved into the agency’s housing a week after graduation. She agreed to abide by the program’s requirements: She must stay in school, work, complete monthly community service and participate in independent living skills courses.

Living and learning at daniel has given Vail a direction in life: She wants to help teenagers the same way counselors have helped her.

“Without them to guide me in the right direction, I don’t know where I’d be,” she said. “I completely almost gave up my whole entire life when I was with my mom. They gave me the courage and strength to do what I’ve got to do.”

Vail wants to help as many people as she possibly can, she said.

“I really see myself changing somebody’s life – a lot of people’s lives.”