ORANGE PARK – Six months ago, obtaining a high school diploma seemed nothing less than a herculean task for two Clay County residents. The possibility was always there but it was more pipe dream …
ORANGE PARK – Six months ago, obtaining a high school diploma seemed nothing less than a herculean task for two Clay County residents. The possibility was always there but it was more pipe dream than anything else. Now, though, Tavian Raggins, 19, and Milena Carter, 18, are not only high school graduates, but looking at a future that’s wide-open, bright and finally, within their reach.
Raggins’ and Carters’ success stories are the first to emerge from a new organization formed last fall called the Clay Youth Connection.
In its infant stages, Clay Youth Connection worked to address housing challenges its members new existed within the community. They heard stories of students on the verge of dropping out of high school due to instability in their housing. Clay Youth Connection worked with the Clay County School District to identify students who were temporarily displaced and give them a place to live, so that a lack of sleep on a proper bed, or a void of breakfast, will no longer be a hurdle they face in their high school education. While the Moosehaven retirement community stepped up to become the home of the Clay Youth Connection, the program became the sole mission of Orange Park Town Council Member Connie Thomas.
“We had a lot of people concerned about a lady always on the side of a road in town and it turned out that she was homeless,” Thomas said. “That’s when I decided to learn more about the homeless in Orange Park.”
After looking into the homeless problem, Thomas discovered a dark truth hidden within the town: homelessness doesn’t affect just adults; it affects children too, and many of those children, despite their situation, still attempt to make it through school. Thomas brought this to the attention of Moosehaven’s Executive Director, John Capes, and everything fell into place.
Before Clay Youth Connection, Raggins was living with his mom, dad, four brothers and his sister. Not only did Raggins struggle to find a private and personal space within the house he called home, he was void of basic necessities that a student needs to be successful in school: a backpack, pens and pencils, paper and more.
“School was, and is, very important to me but I was struggling,” Raggins said. “I couldn’t focus at home and that affected my work in school.”
Before Clay Youth Connection, Raggins was, in his words, “just barely making it.” He knew he needed a change of scenery and a place to focus, but his family wasn’t growing smaller anytime soon and his parents weren’t buying a new house. One day, though, Raggins heard about the Clay Youth Connection while attending class at Orange Park High and how it could help him.
“When I heard about it, it sounded like something for me,” Raggins said. “I looked into it and knew I needed this.”
Raggins, determined to make something better of his education, explained to his parents what the program was and they begrudgingly agreed – they were not excited about saying goodbye to their son for half a year.
“I mean, they hated it when I first told them,” Raggins said. “Once they saw how I changed, and how beneficial it was to me, their feelings changed.”
Not only did his parents’ feelings change, Raggins himself became a new person. At Moosehaven, he was given school supplies, food, a place to sleep, live and call his, constant guidance and a job.
While all of these amenities served to keep Raggins focused on the goal, and certainly allowed him to do so, it was his life coach that allowed Raggins to grow into the young man he is today.
“My life coach would come and just talk to me, and we’d talk for hours and hours,” Raggins said. “I just needed someone to talk to, someone to give me guidance and advice, someone to be there for me and even though we only met once a week, she was that person for me.”
After graduating, Raggins moved back home and is now waiting for the call of duty, which he’s hoping comes next month.
“I’m joining the Army and I’m hoping to go in July,” Raggins said.
For Raggins, the Army is the route he thinks best suits him and his goals in life.
“I want to be financially secure, continue my education which they’ll pay for, get insurance and everything else,” Raggins said. “I think it’s the right step for me and I can’t wait to get started.”
None of this – a high school diploma, a job, a new outlook on life and the Army – would have been possible without Clay Youth Connection. According to Raggins, the program showed him just how successful someone can be, and how beneficial it is, to have stability in your life.
At an event held at First Baptist of Orange Park to celebrate Raggins and Carter’s accomplishment, Raggins, in front of his many mentors and sponsors, said he’s beyond happy to be in the position he’s in right now.
“All of this is because of you, and the best is yet to come,” Raggins said.
While Raggins struggled to focus on education before Clay Youth Connection, Carter struggled to find a supportive backbone from her loved ones, affecting not only her education, but every other aspect of her life as well.
Before joining the Clay Youth Connection and graduating from Ridgeview High, Carter’s family life could best be summed up as abusive.
“Before all of this, I lived with a very abusive family, my family,” Carter said, during celebration for her and Raggins. “I was very shy. I couldn’t even look people in the eye.”
Today, Carter is still a tad shy, but her gaze is claer when you’re talking to her. She’s now smiling and confident, not only in her abilities, but who she is.
“I’m a different person now,” Carter said. “When I first got to Moosehaven, I immediately lost it.”
“I couldn’t stop crying because everyone was so nice to me,” Carter said, fighting back tears. “I wasn’t used to that. I was used to being surrounded by mean people.”
Once she was free of abuse, and safe in the hands of Moosehaven and Clay Youth Connection, Carter said she broke from her shell.
“Everything changed,” Carter said. “School, work, my friends, my life – all of it. All of it changed.”
Now that she’s a high school graduate, something Carter admits seemed far-fetched before Clay Youth Connection, she’s heading to Virginia Beach to be a nanny for the summer to save money for another thing she never thought possible – college.
When Carter returns from Virginia Beach, she’s going to pursue her passion for art as a graphic arts major at St. Johns River State College.
“I’ve been doing art since I’ve been able to hold a pencil in my hand, maybe even before that,” Carter said with a chuckle.
While attending college, Carter plans to move back in with her family, but this time, she believes things will be better. In fact, according to her, things are already better.
“We’re working on it and things are definitely getting better,” Carter said. “The main problem was removed so now we’re just working through the emotional state of our relationship.”
“I think everything will be OK,” Carter said.
Thomas said she is happier than she ever thought possible to see the program work the way every stakeholder imaged.
“I consider this one of the greatest blessings of being an elected official,” Thomas said. “To be a small part in these children’s live is a huge moment for me and I’m ready for the next round of [Clay Youth Connection].”
Next school year, Clay Youth Connection will still be the same as it was. This time, though, those involved have learned what works, what doesn’t and what can be improved on. They’re also planning to receive help, either via a partnership or simply as a support, from Touchstone, a youth crisis center functioning in Duval County.
“What we did this year was spectacular, and I’m so excited to have Touchstone join in on this,” Thomas said. “I can’t wait to see how Clay Youth Connection grows from here.”