TALLAHASSEE (FBCH)—Kei Kei. It’s a strong, memorable name that perfectly suits the take-charge personality of a 15 year-old girl with an electric smile who lives on the Tallahassee campus of the Florida Baptist Children’s Homes.
Right now, Hannah and Brent Romero are in charge of Kei Kei as her house parents. But one day, Hannah Romero predicts, Kei Kei will be in charge of a lot of people.
“She is very goal-oriented and driven with a go-getter type of personality. I see her taking control of a company someday—or even the world,” Romero laughed.
That natural leadership ability is being honed by the Florida Youth Leadership Academy, a special program sponsored by the Florida Department of Children and Families.
The year-long program selects outstanding youth in the foster care system and teaches them valuable leadership skills such as team building, conflict resolution, and public speaking. One of 22 students chosen, Kei Kei has been paired with a mentor who will guide and challenge her through the process, which culminates with a community service project.
Short for Tekeiyah, Kei Kei has spent most of her life in foster care. She came to the FBCH in January 2010 from Panama City to be closer to her mother, who was incarcerated. The plan was for Kei Kei, along with an older and younger sister, to be reunified with their mother after her release.
The family was not able to reunify, and Kei Kei returned to Panama City to pursue a possible adoption. When the adoption fell through, Kei Kei returned to Tallahassee in December 2011 to the FBCH cottage and the Romeros.
The FYLA began in February and ends in September. The 22 students meet every other month for three days in different locations around the state. Romero sees the program as a terrific opportunity for Kei Kei to build a community with other students from around the state who have been in foster care and have not let the challenges defeat them.
Kei Kei said she has enjoyed “being around kids in the same situation and feeling free to talk. They hear you out.”
“We take classes on self-control, managing money, and becoming better leaders,” she said.
A rising sophomore at Lincoln High School, Kei Kei enjoys playing sports, especially softball, and hanging out with her friends. She also has a strong bond with the Romeros.
“My houseparents are awesome,” she said. “Hannah cooks really good, so you’re always hungry thinking about the next meal.” Her favorite meal is hamburger steaks with mashed potatoes.
Kei Kei’s goal-oriented and positive personality continues to help her overcome challenges. Romero said that when she returned to Tallahassee, she got put in a very difficult math class that was probably beyond her abilities. After floundering a bit, Kei Kei worked hard to catch up.
“Two weeks later, she had turned things around,” Romero said.
When Kei Kei described herself as strong, patient, and kind, Romero laughed and said, “I would never describe her as patient.”
But Romero has seen a whole new side to Kei Kei since she returned to the cottage in December. The Romeros are adopting Michah, a 5 year-old orphan from the Ukraine with developmental and communication delays.
“I wasn’t sure of what to expect with Kei Kei,” Romero said. “Little kids are not her favorite. But she is so sweet with Michah. She gets on the floor and plays with him. She doesn’t just want to hold him. And she doesn’t get frustrated with him. I really didn’t think she would interact with him like that.”
Kei Kei says her goals for the future include attending the University of Miami and then becoming an officer in the U.S. Army.
Kei Kei’s mentor in the FYLA program is Tanya Wilkins, wife of DCF Secretary David Wilkins. Besides meeting with Kei Kei during the 3-day sessions, Tanya Wilkins stays in regular touch with Kei Kei.
“She’s very encouraging to me and is positive about a lot of things,” Kei Kei said. “She also challenges me about school.”
Wilkins described Kei Kei as “mature beyond her years. I have watched her be a mediator, a leader, and a mentor to other youth in the Florida Youth Leadership Academy.”
Throughout all the changes and challenges, Kei Kei has lived her life by a simple motto: “You have to make the best of things.”
“That really is her motto,” Romero says. She hasn’t let being in foster care for the majority of her life hold her back. Many kids aren’t like that. It’s amazing for someone her age.”
“When you meet her, you just know that she is something special. She exudes energy and has an electric smile. She will be a powerful woman one day. Whatever it is, she will be in charge,” Romero said.
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Copyright © 2013 Florida Baptist Witness
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