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

STREET. PETERSBURG — Backstage at the ballroom, hairstylists are curling girls’ hair, makeup artists are lining the models’ lips and a petite teen with freshly combed bangs dons a donated ballgown.

She smoothes the shimmering emerald skirt. She tightens the spaghetti straps. She then turns in front of a full-length mirror, smiling at her reflection.

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

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

Bella Perez smiles at her reflection after getting her first professional makeup done.

[ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

When Bella enrolled in August, she had been out of school for over five years, not finishing fifth grade.

She’s only been at the school for at-risk teens for seven months, but she quickly impressed the teachers, who worked with her one-on-one. Her counselors helped her process what had happened with her mother.

Now, it’s almost where it should be: 10th grade. And, for the first time in a long time, she has friends.

“You look so beautiful!” a girl tells him

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

Most of the models at the “Value Me” luncheon had never been to a fashion show. Bella Perez, center, was nervous and excited to walk across a stage for the first time.

[ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

They’re wobbling around in heels, trying to walk along a line in the carpet, when the principal says, “Okay, most of you are sitting at table 37. Do either of you have a parent coming over? Or any guests?

Some girls scan the room. Others look away.

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

“No one comes for me,” says a companion with braids.

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

He shrugs and says quietly, “I don’t know.”

• • •

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

Her mom told her that her dad wanted nothing to do with her.

For most of elementary school, Bella went to class. But when she was 10 years old, her mother had a baby and kept Bella at 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 would land the next night. Alone with the baby most of the time and often without the Internet, she wished she had the rhythms of school and played with children her age.

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

Bella was 12 years old when she met her dad. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to see her, she found out. She had been asking for it for years. But her mother kept telling her that Bella wasn’t hers, until she needed child support from her.

He took a paternity test and then with his wife went to see their daughter.

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

Isabella “Bella” Pérez, 15, modeled her dream dress in a fashion show to raise money for her school. She arrived at the PACE Center for Girls last fall, after missing out on much of her childhood, and quickly impressed her teachers and counselors.

[ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

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

But Bella had never had a phone.

Two years later, Bella and her mom started fighting. The screaming turned into slaps, she says, and then “my mom started hitting 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 nearest house and called. An old man let him use her phone.

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

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

• • •

Just before noon, the girls line up along a hallway, 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 non-profit Pace School, which offers free education, therapy and life skills training. Organizations like Duke Energy and PNC Bank sponsor tables at lunch.

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

The teens were able to choose two donated dresses to model at lunch. None of them had worn a party dress. Bella Pérez wanted to keep the pink “princess dress” that she was wearing.

[ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

When a teacher opens the doors, saxophone jazz spills into the room. The girls see spotlights shining, an arch covered in roses, 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 asset. Or our responsibilities. It depends on us.”

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

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

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

After lunch, they will change into different dresses, add jewelry, and enter individually. Which is much scarier.

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

The girl with a ponytail hugs her dad. Another hugs her mom.

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

His stepmother.

At lunch, Ashley Chase, left, surprised her stepdaughter, Bella Perez. Afterwards, she opened her arms for a hug. “You did great,” she told the teen, “I’m so proud of you!”

[ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

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

Now, here was someone who wanted her.

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

About this series

Encounters is dedicated to small but significant stories. Sometimes they take place far from the hubbub of the daily news; sometimes, they can be part of it. To suggest an idea, contact editor Claire McNeill at [email protected].