For a Florida teen catching up on missed moments, a night in the spotlight

ST. PETERSBURG — Behind the ballroom stage, stylists are curling girls’ hair, makeup artists are lining models’ lips, and a petite teenager with freshly fluffed bangs zips into a donated evening gown.

She smooths the glittering emerald skirt. Tightens the spaghetti straps. Then twirls in front of a full-length mirror, beaming at her reflection.

She’s only worn a fancy dress once before. She’s never had her hair or makeup done, not like this. She feels different dressed up. Older. More important. It’s hard to explain, she tells a classmate. “Like you’re supposed to stand up straighter.”

In a few minutes, Isabella Perez, 15, will step from the dark wings of the Hilton Carillon Park into the spotlight. She’s one of seven students at the Pace Center for Girls getting ready for this year’s “Value Me” fashion show fundraiser.

When Bella enrolled in August, she had been out of school for more than five years — had not finished fifth grade.

She has only been at the school for at-risk teens for seven months but quickly impressed the teachers, who worked with her individually. Counselors helped her process what had happened with her mom.

Now, she’s almost caught up to where she should be: 10th grade. And, for the first time in forever, she has friends.

“You look so pretty!” a girl tells her.

“Thanks!” Bella says, smiling. “You look like a princess!”

They’re teetering in heels, trying to walk along a stripe in the carpet, when the principal calls, “OK, most of you are sitting at Table 37. Do any of you have a parent coming? Or any guest?”

Some girls scan the room. Others avert their eyes.

“My dad’s coming,” calls a student with a ponytail.

“No one’s coming for me,” says a classmate with braids.

Bella knows her dad probably has to work. She understands.

She shrugs and says softly, “I don’t know.”

• • •

For as long as she can remember, Bella and her mom bounced between motels and weekly rentals in Tampa. Sometimes, her mom worked in restaurants but never long enough to get an apartment.

Her mom told her that her dad didn’t want anything to do with her.

For most of elementary school, Bella went to class. But when she was 10, her mom had a baby — and made Bella stay home.

“I had to take care of my sister,” she says. “My mom just gave up.”

Bella spent her days changing diapers and giving baths, not knowing where they’d land the next night. Alone with the baby most of the time, and often without internet, she wished for the rhythms of school, playtime with kids her own age.

“I missed all of middle school,” she says. “Not just the classes. Everything about being that age.”

Bella was 12 when she met her dad. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to see her, she found out. He had been asking to for years. But her mom kept telling him Bella wasn’t his — until she needed child support.

He took a paternity test — then, with his wife, went to see his daughter.

“They were so nice to me,” Bella says, “so happy to see me.”

Her dad and stepmom wrote their numbers on a slip of paper, which she put in her jeans pocket.

But Bella had never had a phone.

Two years later, Bella and her mom started fighting. Screaming turned into slapping, she says, then “my mom started beating me.”

“Aug. 27, she kicked me out,” Bella says. “In the rain.”

They had been staying at an Airbnb, so Bella didn’t know any neighbors. She ran to the closest house and knocked. An elderly man let her use his phone.

“My dad and stepmom moved me into their house that night,” says Bella. “I’ve lived with them ever since, in Kenneth City.”

Her stepmom tried to find Bella’s transcripts, but there were none. So she went online, searching for a school that could help.

• • •

Just before noon, the girls line up along a hall, giggling, tugging at their dresses. Most have never seen a fashion show.

The annual event is organized by the Beth Dillinger Foundation to raise money for the nonprofit Pace school, which offers free education, therapy and life skills training. Organizations like Duke Energy and PNC Bank sponsor tables at the luncheon.

“I’m so nervous,” Bella says, wringing her hands. “I’ve never been on a stage.”

As a teacher opens the doors, saxophone jazz spills into the hall. The girls see spotlights shining, a rose-covered arch, dozens of tables surrounded by hundreds of people.

“Just follow the leader,” says the teacher.

The saxophone stops. A man with a microphone says, “These children could become our assets. Or our liabilities. It’s up to us.”

The girls don’t hear him. They’re concentrating on walking without twisting their ankles, strolling slowly as a group with their shoulders back. Turning, waving, stopping every few steps to strike a pose.

Near the end of the line, Bella rushes to catch up, clutching her skirt with both hands. “I love the green on you,” whispers the girl beside her.

“Oh, wait until you see the next dress,” Bella says, smiling. “It’s long and blush pink, my favorite color. I didn’t have a quinceanera, but I wanted one. And a gown just like that.”

After lunch, they’ll change into different dresses, add jewelry, and walk in individually. Which is so much scarier.

The students’ table is in the back of the ballroom. They promenade past donors, sheriff’s deputies, elected officials. Only a few seats at the girls’ table have guests.

The ponytailed girl hugs her dad. Another embraces her mom.

Then a dark-haired woman stands up and holds out her arms to Bella, crying, “Look at you!”

Her stepmom.

Bella hadn’t heard from her mother in months. No call at Christmas. Not even a card on her birthday.

Now, here was someone who wanted her.

“You came!” Bella squeals, reaching out for a hug. “I didn’t think anyone would come for me.”

About this series

Encounters is dedicated to small but meaningful stories. Sometimes, they play out far from the tumult of the daily news; sometimes, they may be part of it. To suggest an idea, contact editor Claire McNeill at cmcneill@tampabay.com.