Joselynn Colon looks up with a grin.
Her smile reveals and belies all at the same time. It reflects the joys of her present, the hopes for her future, the drive to help others.
Yet it also hides the pains of her 19 years, the indelible scars — physical and emotional — of a childhood gone too soon and an innocence stolen too young.
Holding a worn composition book — its binding slipping away, each sheet covered with penciled scribble — she thumbs through the pages of personal poetry.
"There are a lot of hard times in this book," Colon says cheerfully. "This book has been my life. It goes everywhere I go. It makes me remember where I came from and who I was back then. It makes me pursue the new person I want to become."
Some pages are neatly folded into shapes, tucked into the margins so she won't have to relive her darker days.
She unfolds one, and begins to read.
This is coming from the heart, and that's the only way to start.
Since I was a little girl, my whole life went into a swirl.
Colon, shy but caring, tells her story for Holiday Hopes, the annual Tampa Bay Times series that asks readers to fulfill the wishes of those in need. She sits within the comfort and stability of the "Starting Right, Now" residence in South Tampa. Today, she is stronger, healthier. She is shining.
She entered the program for homeless teens a year ago, as much in need of emotional structure as physical shelter.
In the fall of 2016, she made a habit of showing up late and leaving early at Leto High School. Working two jobs to pay for a relative's $300 efficiency left her exhausted in the morning and eager to get on the job and earn another dollar.
The efficiency, sealed off from the kitchen and the rest of the house, offered no opportunity for Colon to prepare meals at home. So she often came to Leto just to get lunch, storing some of the food in her backpack so she could have dinner.
This accommodation still trumped living in the damp and humid sewer she shared with bugs and turtles for a week, struggling to find a good night's rest while cars rushed overhead.
Her wayward path led to involvement with gangs and crime. She once carried a package for a friend, and when she discovered a gun inside, she thought of using it on herself.
At best, she saw only prison in her future.
Her truancy drew the attention of police, who told her she could reveal her reasons for missing school to an officer of the court or a social worker at the school.
She chose the social worker, who eventually directed her to "Starting Right, Now," a holistic program that has changed the trajectory of hundreds of lives since its inception in 2007.
My whole life is on a lockdown. Every day I walk with a frown.
I just want to be free, and live my life.
Colon arrived on Halloween, wearing a costume that masked her painful past. Betrayed by the people she was supposed to trust the most, she stepped in with skepticism.
"She wouldn't look you in the eye," founder and executive director Vicki Sokolik said. "She really would only acknowledge you if she had to. She just kind of kept to herself.
"But I could tell she had a beautiful soul."
With the help of mentor Elizabeth Fowler and therapy and counseling provided by "Starting Right, Now," Colon has grown more confident in sharing her story. She chokes back tears when asked about her upbringing, but explains in halting words that her stepfather sexually abused her at age 8 and prostituted her to buyers between the ages of 10 and 14.
"He got me out of school whenever he wanted to without my mom knowing," Colon explained. "I never told anyone because he always started to hit me.
"I grew my courage to tell him no and he pulled a knife. ... That's how I got this scar," she added, pointing to her left arm.
Eventually, her mother and stepfather divorced. He ended up in prison, convicted not of crimes against her, but prostituting others.
My whole life went down the drain, and I went through all the pain.
I wish I could go back and walk through my life, on a different track.
At "Starting Right, Now," Colon embraced one of the program's mantras and "trusted the process." She gave up work and concentrated on improving her grades and making up for lost classroom time.
In June, she graduated from Leto and now pursues certification as a paramedic, a job that will allow her to care for others the way she wanted someone to care for her. Once trapped in a shell, she now realizes she can be a shield for others.
"Sometimes it takes not being blood to work that magic," Colon said, speaking of the love Sokolik and Fowler have shown her.
Fowler says Colon's career choice reflects her selfless, genuine warmth.
"I've gained a friend and I've gained a daughter and I've gained a family member," Fowler said. "It's proof to me it's never too late for someone to change. They just need a chance. All they need is an extra boost and consistency."
Through Holiday Hopes, Colon hopes to get a mobile phone, clothes worn by medics (think multiple pockets) and winter wear for when she visits her biological father in Massachusetts.
In my life, I haven't seen many grins,
But I'll be strong.
No matter how long.
At a recent holiday celebration with other "Starting Right, Now" students and mentors, Colon stood and gave thanks for being alive. She said she's learned to realize people will walk in and out of her life but she can't allow those who walk out to deter her joy or dent her hopes.
Around her neck dangles a silver cross, with points on each end. Some theologians say the "pointed cross" represents Christ's suffering and the enduring passion of followers. No matter what comes her way, Colon seems ready to endure.
"With it, I feel protected," Colon says. "I'm a beautiful creation. I had to learn that."
Contact Ernest Hooper at [email protected] Follow him @hoop4you.
>>ABOUT the series
For the 12th consecutive year, the Tampa Bay Times presents Holiday Hopes, a series profiling people in need and giving readers a chance to help. The Times will update readers about granted wishes on Dec. 24.
Starting Right, Now student Joselynn Colon, hopes to receive a new cell phone, winter wear and clothes specifically designed for EMT workers as she continues to pursue certification as an EMT and paramedic at Hillsborough Community College. Email [email protected] to help.