From the Homeless Shelter to the Virtual Graduation Stage

Brianna Collins sat on a bench at Ivey Lane Park one evening, adjusting her braids to fit into her graduation cap. Then, she stood and sashayed down the sidewalk, staging a mock graduation ceremony for herself. The 17-year-old had been making the most of the cap at home, and so had her younger siblings. “They usually try to wear my cap and gown down the hallway,” she said, laughing. “They’re proud of me.” Her family, friends, and community have a lot to be proud of, in her. She is one of the 2020 graduates of Jones High School in Orlando. She is also one of two graduating seniors in the faith-based nonprofit MAN UP Mentoring Inc., which serves youth in Ivey Lane Homes. Brianna moved to the public housing authority two years ago. As the oldest of seven kids, she has carried the responsibility of helping her single mother and being an example in school for her siblings. She has remained resilient in the face of difficulties. 

“We actually did not have a house growing up,” she said. “We lived in shelters.” 

When Brianna was in middle school, she, her mom, and siblings moved into the Orlando Union Rescue Mission, where they stayed for about three years. 

“It was kind of scary at first,” Brianna recalled. “But after a while, I got the hang of it. I met new people there. I met new friends, and they helped me become a better person. Some kids who live there also went to school with me. So we’d stick together, basically,” she remembered. “I’m proud of myself for doing that.”

Brianna entered high school with the resolve to succeed and embrace new experiences, including advanced placement classes and art. Her mother, she said, has kept her grounded throughout her journey. 

“She always makes sure that we’re taken care of; makes sure that we’ve got everything that we need. And I’m thankful for her in my life.” 

Brianna’s friends and family have also been supportive. 

“I won’t be where I am today without their help,” she said. “They always push me to do better,” she said. “Be a good example. Try harder. Never give up, stuff like that. And because of that, I’m graduating. I’m thankful for that. Thank you for giving me good advice.”

When asked what words of wisdom she had for other youth who have gone through some of the same experiences that she has, she responded:

“There’s so many obstacles in your life and you’ve got to push through every single one of them to be greater for, not only, yourself, but for others around you. Always inspire people. Help them also to achieve their goals. And it can be a good and fun experience for your life.”

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