Her shoes are lined up neatly in order, a rainbow of colors and patterns: checked, fuchsia, hot pink, sherbet.
“I've got a thing for shoes,” admits Leila Coleman. “It's a way I can express myself.”
That may not be out of the ordinary for a 12-year-old girl on the cusp of being a teen. But for Leila, who just started seventh grade at Memorial Middle School in Tampa, being a “normal” preteen hasn't been easy. She's had challenges most of her classmates could never imagine.
Like bouncing back and forth between her parents in different states while they were separated. Giving up her beloved dog because of the extra expense and the uncertainty of where they were living. Moving from one low-rent place to another when financial hardship hit the family. Living in a trailer for several months with all the utilities cut off, and walking a mile to get a free hot meal at a local soup kitchen.
There was even a stretch when she couldn't go to school for four months, because the adults in her life couldn't come up with proof of residency or get her proper vaccinations.
Through it all, she's managed to keep up her grades, maintain a positive attitude and stayed focused on her future. She possesses a quiet, self-assured quality that has served her well during these tumultuous times.
And now things are really looking up.
Leila and her mother, Amy Elam, are among the newest residents at the just-opened MiraclePlace on the campus of Metropolitan Ministries on Florida Avenue near downtown Tampa. When I met them, they were still unpacking boxes in their 450-square-foot apartment, which includes one bedroom, a two-sink bathroom and a study/living area with space for a second bed.
Leila got the private room.
“It's my own space,” she says, proudly showing off a bed filled with stuffed animals. “It's going to make it easier to study. And sometimes my mom doesn't like my music. This gives us both a little privacy.”
Having an apartment to call their own — in this transition period between being on the brink of homelessness and setting down roots — should have a powerful impact on this mother and daughter. They are in a safe place until Amy completes a program designed specifically for her needs and finds suitable employment.
“Not having to worry about where our next meal comes from or if we'll have hot water for a shower, or how we can keep the lights on ... all of that makes such a difference,” Amy says. “Those things can take all your energy and all your time, and it's impossible to move forward.”
In the meantime, Rafael Coleman, Amy's husband and Leila's father, is splitting his time between the Salvation Army and a friend's couch as he works toward finding a good job that will support his family. Because of a battery arrest last fall and subsequent jail time, he doesn't meet the guidelines to live at MiraclePlace. Amy understands that. But he is taking part in counseling and classes here designed to give him the tools to turn his life around.
It wasn't always this way for this family. Amy says until a year ago, they always made enough money to pay the rent and their bills. But after both she and Rafael lost their jobs and depleted their savings, they couldn't keep up anymore. They lost their home.
“It's amazing how quick it can happen,” she says. “And of course, I never imagined it actually happening to us. And it's even worse when your children get dragged into the whole mess. You feel like you've failed them.”
This trio's ongoing story is what MiraclePlace is all about. Keeping families together — families torn apart by bad choices, financial upheaval, broken dreams or just plain rotten luck.
This latest endeavor is a $23 million project first announced a few years ago by Metropolitan Ministries, which has been offering shelter and assistance to the homeless in the Tampa Bay area for 41 years.
At the time, our economy was downright depressing. People were losing jobs at a record pace. Struggling companies were putting a halt to philanthropic efforts. Yet the nonprofit forged ahead anyway.
CEO Morris Hintzman, a Methodist minister who has been with the ministry since the beginning, says he wasn't concerned about launching an ambitious fundraising campaign in such a financially unstable time.
“This community has proven over and over again that it is willing to step up when needed,” he says. “Given what was happening, our story was leading the evening news and on the front page of the paper every day. Not always with our name on it, but the stories of people who were being affected by the economy. And those are just the people we serve.”
The nonprofit's leadership put forth its vision for MiraclePlace: A 52-unit transitional housing project that would keep down-on-their-luck families out of tents, vacant structures, cars and the streets. It would also help with educational programs, job training and counseling. Those who met the requirements could stay for up to a year, saving their money and working toward an independent life.
Just as Hintzman predicted, the community responded.
The first phase of the project — which includes the housing complex — cost $15 million. And get this: It's completely paid for. Donations came from corporate sponsors, individuals, and from Metropolitan Ministries' staff and board. The rest came from grants, the city of Tampa and a federal program.
Fundraising for Phase Two — which will cost another $8 million — is already underway.
I've learned not to doubt Hintzman's optimism. This part of the project will include an expanded playground, a recreational center, a youth enrichment center, a chapel, and renovations and upgrades to the existing Family Care Center.
And lastly, construction will begin on the final piece of this multi-part project: a Hillsborough County Partnership School for kindergarten through fifth grade.
Amy, who is looking for a job in the food and beverage industry, tells her daughter: Don't get too comfortable. Our goal is to leave here. Our goal is to be back with your father in our own home and be a family again.
Leila gets it it. But she's thankful that for now, she has a place to put all those shoes. She has a comfortable refuge while her parents get their act together and take the necessary steps to give her a stable environment. She stays away from drinking and drugs so she can focus on her studies and realize her dream of being a pediatrician one day.
Her faith helps, too. Leila was recently baptized at Word of Life Fellowship in Hudson. If and when things get a little shaky again, she says she will find her strength in God's love and guidance.
So much could have gone so wrong in Leila's life. Seeing her in this setting is truly uplifting.
MiraclePlace is really the perfect name for this new undertaking. Because, like Hintzman says, miracles happen here every day.