ST. PETERSBURG — In the aftermath of Seminole High School's graduation, as her classmates handed off their caps and gowns to their parents, folded their programs into fans for relief from the heat and cursed their platform heels, Lena Plancon could not stand still.
There were too many pictures to take, people to thank and tears to be wiped from smiling cheeks. Sky-high platform sandals and all, 18-year-old Plancon fluttered about Tropicana Field's mobbed sidewalks Tuesday to find her family — a family she now refers to as her biggest support system and her “life savers,” but was once a source of her misfortunes.
“My family is here for each other no matter what,” said Plancon as her father kissed her on the cheek. “Of course we've had our rough times with, 'I hate you's' and what not, but I think that all comes with being a family and has made us stronger.”
Ask any of her smiling, teary-eyed family members, though, and it wasn't always a sure thing Plancon would be the first in her immediate family to graduate high school.
“I am just tickled to see her graduate,” her grandmother, Bunny Barrows, said. “Sometimes it was a tough pull, but we have a strong village behind us and she's just a tenacious little ball of light. She's true grit, this girl, and I think she'll go far.”
Plancon has bounced from home-to-home and school-to-school throughout Pinellas County in her 18 years. Saying her freshmen year was “rocky” is an understatement, she says, but with tough love from her family and a desire to overcome her obstacles, Plancon turned D's and F's and a 1.6 grade point average into A's and B's and a 3.2 GPA. This school year, she was selected for the school district's Turnaround Achievement Award for her transformation.
Tuesday she was wearing a white honor court robe instead of green.
“My freshmen year I never went to school, I never did anything I was supposed to. I would just stay out late and do whatever I wanted because I was old enough that I could,” Lena said. “That's what I'm always going to look back on and be proud that I was actually able to pull myself out of my funk, forgive all the past mistakes and move on.”
When Plancon was born she tested positive for cocaine and was taken from her mother and put into foster care. She was 2 when she saw her mother again. As her parents struggled with drug addiction and filtered in and out of jail, Plancon and her brother, Lewis, 17, bounced to about six different foster care families. Lena attended four different elementary schools, her younger brother the only face she knew.
“It was absolutely horrible; I hate thinking about it,” Lena said. “I can't remember us ever signing up for clubs or sports at school or ever doing anything fun. I would have this friend one week and a new friend another and I think it definitely got to us. My brother and I have always been glued at the hip. I don't know who was the stronger one.”
“It was you,” Lewis said.
When the two went to live with their grandparents, they found the structure they longed for. They started going to church. Lewis got involved in basketball and track, and Lena began to explore her love of dance, twirling flags and rifles on the school color guard team.
But when their mother died in 2009, and their grandfather died three months later, the two decided to live with their father after he was released from prison. Lena started hanging out with the wrong crowd, and bad grades and unrest followed.
In desperation, Lena contacted her aunt, Linda Barrows, and asked if she could live with her. In three years, her aunt provided the structure Lena needed, her father said. Now, missing homework assignments and skipping classes came with consequences and, most importantly, help whether it was wanted or not. Soon, her aunt's heavy hand created an internal drive for success and independence in Lena. When it was time to start thinking about college, she set to work securing admittance to St. Petersburg College on her own.
“There's only one cowboy I know that could corral Lena after her mother passed and that's her aunt,” Charles Plancon said. “Lena's a little butterfly, so sweet and loving and social, but she thinks with her head and her whole heart and, when she makes up her mind to do something — good or bad — that's what she's going to do. I think she's learned from her mistakes, and she's got an amazing head on her shoulders.”
Not only did Lena make a miraculous change with her grades, she also has a job at Burger King, fosters her love of writing and has devoted nearly all her free time since sixth grade to her school's color guard team.
When Lena starts at SPC in the fall, she hopes to study forensics. Or maybe become a teacher. Or maybe even a journalist.
One thing she does know, though, is she's going to be something special.
“I've learned that no matter what, you can't give up on yourself. If you want something you have to go get it, because you'll waste your whole life waiting for someone to hand it to you,” Lena said.