Homeless Teen Inspires as Head of YMCA Teen Achievers
The program is run through the Bob Gilbertson Central City Family YMCA, 110 E. Palm Avenue.
At first glance, she's a typical teenager.
Jahouda "Jo Jo" Santos buzzes around the Bob Gilbertson Central City Family YMCA in a short-sleeved jean jacket, black leggings and a brightly-colored blouse. The 18-year-old smiles often, walking briskly through the brightly-lit halls to take attendance for the YMCA's Teen Achiever Program, of which she's president.
The honor roll student's goals - finishing her senior year at Blake High and heading to college so she can become a child psychologist - seem easy to reach.
But after she leaves the Y, she heads to an unlikely place to rest her head: A homeless shelter in Seminole Heights, where she's been staying with her mother since last year.
"It's hard to tell people," she said. "Some of my friends still don’t know I live in a shelter. They say, 'Can I come over and hang out?' I make up excuses. It's kind of embarrassing."
Jo Jo's Journey
Born in Rochester, N.Y., Jo Jo recalls a typical childhood with her parents - both nurses - and two brothers.
"We were a good family," she said. "Having both parents there was really great, and having my brothers there to protect me no matter what. Having a whole family is good for anyone growing up."
A few years later while visiting a relative in Tampa, Jo Jo's mom fell in love with the Sunshine State's bright sun and sandy beaches.
"She said we have to move down there," Jo Jo said. "We packed up and moved down here in 2008."
Once a quiet teenager, the move caused Jo Jo to blossom while attending middle school in Tampa, meeting new friends and enjoying the change of pace.
Soon, things went awry between her parents. They separated when she was 14, leaving Jo Jo's mother, Jo Jo and her brothers on their own. Jo Jo's mother lost her job, causing the family to move around.
The turmoil caused Jo Jo to attend Armwood High for her freshman year, Spoto High for half of her sophomore year, and Blake High since.
"It was hard, because I was a daddy's girl," Jo Jo said. "Me and my brothers were confused. We thought it was us. They (our parents) never explained it to us. They said it wasn't us, but that they weren't happy anymore."
By the time she turned 17, Jo Jo and her brothers were staying with friends of the family. Since there wasn't enough room for everyone, her mother lived in a hotel while paying money to the family friends to allow her children to stay there.
Soon, Jo Jo felt uncomfortable with her living situation, and moved in with a cousin to finish her junior year at Blake. Last summer, the cousin decided Jo Jo's mother should be caring for her and dropped her off at an aunt's house. Jo Jo's mother was unaware of what was going on, but the aunt allowed Jo Jo to stay for the weekend.
"That Monday, my mom called," Jo Jo said. "I went to the hotel, and she said, 'We aren't staying here.' She said we were going to live in a shelter. She said both my brothers would stay with the friend of the family."
Adjusting to shelter life
A friend of Jo Jo's mother who works for a local cab company dropped the duo off for free at The Salvation Army's women and children's shelter. It was late, and Jo Jo and her mother quietly settled into their room. Jo Jo's mother reassured her that she'd continue working a job at Walmart to save money to get a home for the entire family.
"My mom said, 'I know it might be scary,'" Jo Jo recalled, 'but I know we're OK now.'"
A bright spot for Jo Jo rested in the Teen Achiever Program, which was designed to improve students academic performance through field trips, discussions about health, mentoring and job-shadowing opportunities. She became the group's inaugural president in November.
She had been involved in the after-school program for 9th through 12th graders since last year, after Program Director Wayne Johnson talked up the program at Blake.
"I was inspired," said Jo Jo. "I thought, 'A free program?' And I can do it so I won't have to be stuck in the shelter."
Johnson said Jo Jo's story serves as an inspiration to other members of the program.
"With so much negative conversations about teens, it’s a testament to her resilience," he said. "I think this will be the thing that builds her character for the rest of her life."
In a few months, Jo Jo plans to graduate. She wants to become a child psychologist so she can encourage other kids to talk out their problems.
"There's a lot of kids out there where it's hard for them to talk about certain things," she said. "I felt lonely, but I want to talk to other kids and tell them it's fine to talk to people."