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Tent City’s teenage mayor has a PhD in life

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Melissa Alvarado, left, is hugged by her niece Celina Stevens, 16, at the United Way office in Toledo, where they both work and volunteer.

The Blade/Lori King
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Sade Lewis, a talented artist attending a Detroit public high school, was 19, living in a shelter, preparing for her first gallery showing, and considering offers from art schools when I wrote about her in Detroit four years ago. To get that far, she had to go to hell and back.

Her father, who had been incarcerated, died of AIDS. Her mother was a crack addict. After school, Sade would look for her to bring her burgers from Coney Island, then stay with her while she ate to make sure she didn’t sell the food for drugs.

For me, Sade’s hard-knock life and brilliant art made an important point: For all our chatter about failing schools, declining standards, and kids going to hell in a handbasket, it’s a straight-up miracle — and a testimony to their strength and resilience — that many young people do as well as they do.

Public schools nationwide, through the U.S. Department of Education, have identified more than 1 million homeless students. Often invisible and ashamed, they face instability and turmoil at home and on the street, making it difficult — if not impossible — for them to focus on academics or carry on a normal life.

But there are thousands of stories, like Sade’s, of homeless and troubled young people overcoming adversity with a little help and a lot of tenacity. Celina Stevens, 16, of South Toledo, is one of them.

Like Sade, she has a joyous light within that the darkness can’t extinguish. Formerly homeless, Celina will become the first teenager to serve as honorary mayor of Tent City in its 25-year history.

It’s a well-deserved honor. The Perrysburg High School junior already has a PhD in life, having lived in seven states, including Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri, and attended at least 20 schools.

She’s endured numerous stints in state custody, group homes, and psychiatric hospitals, and nine stays in juvenile detention, mostly for disorderly conduct and truancy. In Arkansas, she went to four high schools during her freshman year. Not surprisingly, she was a straight-F student.

With alcohol and drug problems, her parents physically and mentally abused her. When Celina was 14, her father grabbed her by the wrists after she fled the house and dragged her down a gravel road until her lower back was “one big open wound,” she said. After that incident, the state intervened and Celina stayed with a foster family for two months.

Celina and her mother spent many nights sleeping in their car after Celina’s father booted them out, sometimes for weeks at a time. They brushed their teeth with bottled water and cleaned themselves with baby wipes from Walmart.

“When I came home, I never knew what to expect,” Celina told me.

When Celina was 15, she and her mother packed their things in 30 minutes and left before her father, a food service employee, came home from work. Using an income tax refund check to pay for gas, Celina’s mother headed for Toledo, where she grew up and still had family.

In Toledo, Celina and her mother couch-surfed for five months, shuffling between family members and occasionally sleeping in their car. While she was staying with a cousin in Perrysburg, Celina enrolled in Perrysburg High School.

A year ago, her mother went back to Oklahoma, leaving Celina with Celina’s aunt, Melissa Alvarado of South Toledo, a bilingual specialist for United Way of Greater Toledo. Ms. Alvarado, the sister of Celina’s mother, gained legal custody of Celina last February. She finally found the love, support, and stability she needed.

“She’s done a complete turnaround from where she was a year ago,” Ms. Alvarado told me. “I haven’t had one single problem with her.”

Because of her homeless status under the federal McKinney-Vento Act, Celina could stay at Perrysburg High School. A year ago, Celina, who wants to become a cosmetologist and then a social worker, read at a fourth-grade level. Now she earns mostly A’s and B’s. She credits her teachers, guidance counselor, and Principal Michael Short.

Teachers at Perrysburg High School provided tutors when she needed them. They allowed her a little more time to finish a project. When Celina’s memories brought tears to her eyes in class, her teacher allowed her to walk it off.

“It’s been fabulous at Perrysburg,” she told me. “I never had a support system before. I can’t believe I’m Celina. Before, talking to someone in a nice manner or helping someone wasn’t an option for me.”

The school has benefited, too, from the example Celina sets. “We’re a better school because of her,” Thomas Hosler, the superintendent of Perrsyburg Schools, told me. “I really respect what she has done. You realize that courage comes in all sizes and shapes.”

Celina has taken to heart the advice of her mentor, Ken Leslie, who founded Tent City. “Ken always told me that when you feel like you don’t matter, go matter to someone else. It’s true.”

In the last year, she has performed hundreds of hours of volunteer community service, including helping at the United Way call center and preparing food at 1Matters’ community picnics. Last year, she conducted a hygiene drive at school for newly housed veterans. She wrote inspirational messages on the products, such as: “Stars can’t shine without darkness.”

There are many ways we, as a nation and community, can help young people like Celina.

Because of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s narrow definition of homelessness, only an estimated one in five homeless children in Ohio is eligible for federal housing programs. For starters, we can expand the federal definition of homelessness so that more children are eligible for federal aid.

The current definition — covering kids living in shelters and cars and under bridges — excludes children who are staying in motels or temporarily with others. These children are equally vulnerable and perhaps even more disconnected from social services.

U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, has introduced legislation — the Homeless Children and Youth Act — that would expand the definition of homelessness, along with access to federal housing aid, to include nearly 1 million more homeless children and young people.

That’s good, but we also need to push politicians to increase resources substantially for the greater number of eligible people. Even now, HUD-funded homeless programs can serve only a fraction of those who are eligible.

But it’s not all about money. Celina’s aunt, Mr. Leslie, the staff at Perrysburg High School, and others have made a big difference in Celina’s life just by caring about her. Other children need the same attention.

In Ohio, nearly 25,000 children were homeless at some point last year. In Toledo, hundreds of the estimated 1,000 people who are homeless at any time are children. We label them as “at risk” because we, as adults, have put them at risk, and we continue to sell them short.

This year’s Tent City, an annual three-day event in downtown Toledo that raises awareness and connects people to services, will focus on homeless children. Activities start this Friday.

Stop by and see how you can help. Think about how Celina overcame adversity with a little help and a lot of love.

If young people like her feel as though they matter, they will change the world.

Jeff Gerritt is deputy editorial page editor of The Blade. Contact him at: jgerritt@theblade.com, 419-724-6467, or follow him on Twitter @jeffgerritt.

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