Teen can see bright future now

Vela Angelle says she always will remember Feb. 7, 2011, as the day her life made a turn for the better.

"I was so relieved," said Angelle, now 17, who decided that night to leave the chaos of her mother's home and try to make it on her own.

Angelle went to a friend's house and slept on the couch for the night, sharing little about the troubled home life she left behind.

She spent more than a month staying on couches of strangers and friends, eating at community meals and showering on campus at Ashland High School, where she tried to keep her attendance steady.

The decision to leave was sudden, but Angelle always had planned to leave home at a young age and thinks she would have done so by the following summer, regardless. "I knew when I was 12 years old that I wanted to leave by the time I was 16," she said.

Angelle spent two weeks in a safe house in Medford, waking up at 5:30 each morning to catch a bus back to Ashland for school.

With money she'd been saving since elementary school, she then moved into a house in Ashland with older roommates, and eventually saved enough to afford her own studio apartment. "I looked around until I found a landlord that gave me a chance," said Angelle, who admits now, a year-and-a-half later, she is finally settled. "Living on my own is very peaceful," she added. "I'm happier than I've ever been."

Able to maintain decent grades amid the shambles of her home life, Angelle got a 4.0 grade-point average during one of her last terms at Ashland High School.

She will graduate Friday at a ceremony in Lithia Park.

Angelle doesn't think her mother will be there as she receives her diploma and knows her father will be absent. After living in Louisiana all of Angelle's life, her dad died in December after a long battle with an illness.

A Cajun musician from outside Baton Rouge, he visited with Angelle only a handful of times after she and her mother moved to Ashland when Angelle was 4.

The two bonded over a love of music, and he left behind numerous instruments for Angelle, who now plays guitar, drums and violin — to name a few.

She first played her father's African drum at age 7 and can now comfortably carry a tune on most of the instruments stuffed into her small apartment.

"It will always be a hobby of mine," said Angelle, who plans to continue playing music for fun but pursue medicine as a career.

In the fall, she plans to move to Portland and start attending pre-med classes at Portland Community College, hoping to one day work in an emergency room.

"I'm really good under stress," said Angelle, who has always done well academically.

While still living with her mother, she persuaded school officials at Ashland Middle School to let her take proficiency tests and skip the eighth grade, entering high school a year early.

Angelle said many of her classmates at Ashland High School don't understand everything she has been through, and are surprised to hear she was once homeless.

"I talked about things only when I had to," said Angelle, who said she has only a few, mostly older, friends.

"She has had to grow up so quickly," said Becky DeSalvo, Angelle's science teacher. "Vela has done amazingly well."

DeSalvo said that while some AHS students do live in a bubble and wouldn't recognize Angelle's struggle, she believes others are tolerant and understanding.

"Many of the students do have an awareness that times are tough," said DeSalvo. "And there's more than just Vela out there having trouble staying in a home."

DeSalvo said she knows of other students who have struggled with keeping steady housing and hopes the school creates a more formal support group to help students.

Since overcoming homelessness, Angelle has tried to connect with other youths who have faced similar situations, but said most of those kids turned to drugs or dropped out of school, and few have the dedication to succeed that she has.

"It's hard to overcome the feelings of worthlessness," said Angelle, who learned to be strong from her grandmother in Louisiana.

"She always had that never-give-up spirit," said Angelle of her grandmother, who lived through the Great Depression, an abusive husband and life on a farm.

"She never gave up, and she's 89," said Angelle. "She's still enduring."

Angelle said she has a similar attitude but has struggled to find a steady part-time job in Ashland, believing most businesses aren't willing to hire a teenager with limited experience.

"Even to be a dishwasher, they want two years of experience," she said.

Angelle worked seasonally on a forestry crew last year, moving logs and maintaining trails. She said the Job Council was able to secure her the job — but only because she was homeless at the time.

Angelle said resources for the homeless are limited in Ashland, and she couldn't take advantage of many services unless she was willing to relocate to Medford.

She hopes that moving to Portland will offer more opportunities and a chance to continue her independent life.

"I had a teacher tell me once that if I worked really hard and stayed in school, I could get out of the mess I was in," said Angelle. "And I did."

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Teresa Ristow at 541-776-4459 or tristow@mailtribune.com.

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