High school is hard enough for students who come from wealthy families. Imagine how tough it is for students who come from extreme poverty. Now imagine thriving despite the obstacle of never being confident that the bed you sleep in tonight will be the same bed tomorrow.
"Well, for most of my life I've been homeless," said Denisse Pino, a senior at Hialeah-Miami Lakes Senior High School.
Denisse has developed a hard-as-nails exterior, a protective shield against the realities she deals with every day. She doesn't advertise her situation, only her close friends at school know that Denisse and her single mom are constantly bouncing from apartment to shelter to a friend's home.
"I always thought it was normal, if you can't afford to live in a place you have to move to another, and another until you can," Denisse said, as tears welled up. "I didn't think I was different, I assumed that the majority of people go through economic hardship and it wasn't until I reached high school that I realized, oh well, maybe I need some help."
It was her JROTC teacher who noticed Denisse didn't have the basics. Then counselor Odalys Acosta got her involved with Project Upstart, which helps kids like Denisse. On Fridays, Denisse takes advantage of the food pantry Acosta set up in her office, because there's never a guarantee of enough to eat at home. At least at school, she has free breakfast and lunch.
"No matter how bleak the picture may be, I think Denisse always sees that somewhere in there there's a ray of light that she can hold onto, and that's what gets her through it," Acosta said. "This child has had some really difficult situations in life that I don't think the average adult could handle."
"But I don't feel like that limits me, I feel that I can solve problems in my own way or at least attempt to do my best," Denisse said.
Her best is terrific. Denisse is a leader in the JROTC program and she's earned a chest full of honor medals. She's among the top students in her school and as an executive intern, she supports the math teacher by tutoring lower-performing students.
"I know that I've always had difficulties and I always hope that someone would help me as much as I help others," Denisse said.
Denisse also knows a huge part of being successful is showing up. She has perfect attendance throughout her high school career.
Sometimes the best way to judge a person's impact is to ask the people around that person what they think, and in Denisse's case, her impact has been profound.
"Despite everything she's been through, she still pushes that aside and she is there for people and I think that takes tremendous strength," said fellow senior Anjali Gonzalez.
"It's incredible how, you know, she has her hardships yet she still finds time to be there for me, be there for all of her other friends," said Liddne Rodriguez, a classmate who Denisse a role model.
Denisse is college-bound, to UCF to study engineering on scholarship. If school is her oasis, which she says it is, perseverance is her way, she knows nothing else.
"I've accepted it, I know that if this is what I have to go through then I will until I can provide for myself," Denisse said.
Denisse has the toughness of a warrior, and she has advice for the many kids in our community who find themselves immersed in hardship.
"I would tell them not to give up, there has to be a point in their lives when they probably doubt themselves," Denisse said. "It's difficult when you're so tight on money to get what everybody else has, but things will get better."