LEWISTON, Maine — Katelyn Hartzell, 18, should be a high school dropout, she writes in her college essay.
Instead, she’s a senior at Lewiston High School, works at a downtown pizzeria, is an honor roll student, and plans to go to college next year to become a neonatal nurse.
She lives on her own in an efficiency apartment downtown. Her cellphone next to her bed wakes her, telling her it’s time to get up and walk to school.
Until a year ago, Hartzell moved from home to home. Living with her mother wasn’t working, she said.
She bounced between staying with her father in Portland and an uncle in Lewiston.
In her junior year she lived with her boyfriend’s family for six months.
Her home surfing stopped one year ago after she got help through Lewiston High’s homeless program.
She got into a Volunteers of America-sponsored apartment. Through the school’s program she met friends who also had problems with family and homelessness.
“It was good to know I’m not alone,” she said.
Hartzell read from her college essay to explain why she stopped living with her mother. She recalled being 9 years old, “cleaning the aftermath of a party, walking into the third grade every day, sleep deprived.”
Her father became her hero, “the greatest man I’ve ever known.”
He took over her care even though he wasn’t in a good place to be a single father, she said.
“He knew if I had any chance for a good life he had no choice but to begin a new chapter,” she said.
He became consistent with work, got an apartment and enrolled her in counseling. Money was tight, but he cared for her, even when she lived with others to go to school in Lewiston, where she said she had supportive teachers and friends. She spent summers with him in Portland.
When she turned 18, “he said it best, ‘We grew up together,'” she said.
She credits her father with giving her strength to overcome adversity.
“Statistics show I should have dropped out of high school and followed my parents’ footsteps,” Hartzell said. In June “I’ll walk across the graduation stage.”
Cheering will be her father and her friends, including the school’s homeless liaison staff Mary Seaman and Jamie Caouette.
She often drops in the program’s two lower-level rooms to do homework, talk, or get supplies such as toothpaste.
The program has turned her and others into advocates, she said.
“Earlier today my friend said he was having the worst day,” Hartzell said on a recent Monday. “He just got kicked out of his aunt’s house.” Her friend’s parents have passed away, he lived with his aunt. The student said he didn’t know what to do.
“I said, ‘Come downstairs with me. I’ll introduce you to Mary. She’ll help you.'”
It felt good, Hartzell said, “to pass it on.”
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