Wednesday, December 25, 2019
Sisters who lost their parents this year moving on with help of family, friends and Food Brings Hope program
By Eileen Zaffiro-Kean
DAYTONA BEACH — When Sydney and Alexandria White open their eyes this morning, maybe the magic of Christmas will send rays of hope into the darkness they've been trudging through.
Maybe the teenage sisters will remember a little of the unbridled joy that used to fill them at dawn on Christmas morning. Maybe they'll catch a glimpse of the happiness that's waiting for them on the other side of the pain.
Seven days into this year, congestive heart failure took away their father. Nine months later, their mother lost a six-year battle with cirrhosis.
Terry White was just 51 years old. Kimberly Wells was 49.
Before Sydney and Alexandria have celebrated their 18th birthdays or secured high school diplomas, the Mainland High School students have had to move forward without the two people who helped them navigate just about everything.
But there are angels fluttering around the teens, making sure they're going to be OK. There are relatives, good friends, teachers and leaders of the Food Brings Hope program. The program helps kids in financially struggling families get enough to eat, and it provides after-school tutoring and academic enrichment. There's also plenty of life mentoring and nurturing.
Judi Winch has been the executive director of Food Brings Hope for the past five years. She has been keeping an extra close eye on 17-year-old Sydney and 15-year-old Alexandria, who have been in the Food Brings Hope program since they were students at Westside Elementary School, where Winch was the principal.
"I have kept in close contact with them throughout the ups and downs of their lives," Winch said. "This very difficult time is no different."
The nonprofit Food Brings Hope, founded in 2007, has mushroomed to include programs in 27 schools in Volusia County and two in Flagler County. More than 1,700 students are currently enrolled in Food Brings Hope programs.
Over 350 families receive the free bags of food that go home with kids every week. The program even has a house, called Hope House, where homeless students can live.
There are also eight honors programs spread across the 29 schools for the brightest kids in Food Brings Hope. Close to 130 children are in the honors programs.
The honors programs allow students to learn at an accelerated rate and more challenging level. Both Sydney and Alexandria are in the Food Brings Hope honors program.
Sydney was one of the six pioneering students chosen to launch the first honors program eight years ago, when she was in fourth grade at Westside Elementary. Those six students have gone through Westside Elementary, Campbell Middle School and Mainland High together and have remained friends.
Winch was the principal at Westside Elementary when the honors program was founded, and she has made sure she doesn't lose her connection to the program's half-dozen pioneers. Winch and other program leaders take the original six students out to dinner about once a month.
"We listen closely as they each express their needs, challenges and the sharing of successes," Winch said. "Communication is key, so we talk frequently by text, calls or in person."
Food Brings Hope founder Forough Hosseini has helped kids in the program in numerous ways, including offering college tuition help for those who can't cover their costs with scholarships and grants. "Forough Hosseini highly supports Sydney and Alexandria as they begin looking at colleges and deciding their path to further their education," Winch said.
Sydney, a senior at Mainland, has zeroed in on Florida A& M University in Tallahassee and Clark Atlanta University in Georgia as her top two choices.
She plans to major in business administration and minor in finance. Then she wants to get a master's degree.
She has a very specific, and very ambitious, career goal.
"I want to own a Fortune 500 company," Sydney said. "I have big dreams, and none of them involve me being broke."
It's a big upgrade from her goal a few years ago to own her own restaurant someday.
Alexandria is a sophomore and hasn't given much thought to college. She has a dream of becoming a singer and living in New York City.
The sisters are very different. Sydney has the maturity and poise of someone 10 years older. She's serious and maintains a disciplined life to keep up with advanced classes and juggle in being a manager for the boys' junior varsity and varsity basketball teams at Mainland High.
Sydney said going to all the games, both home and away, consumes a lot of her time. "My schedule gets worked around basketball," she said. But she loves it. Perhaps that's partly because it's a way to stay connected to her father, who was a standout basketball player at Seabreeze High School in the 1980s.
Alexandria still has some little girl left in her. She's fidgety, upbeat and extroverted. One day last week she wore a Christmas- themed Snoopy sweatshirt that lights up to school.Alexandria is in Mainland's Student Government Association, and she's one of six managers for the girls' and boys' cheerleading squads at the school. She's thinking about becoming a cheerleader next year for football games.
The two girls, who have no other siblings, have been hit hard by their parents' deaths. But they both have the Food Brings Hope program, and the kids and adults in it, to grab on to when they're feeling empty or alone.
Sydney has particularly enjoyed a group within Food Brings Hope called Girls With Style.
"I was really self conscious entering high school," Sydney said. "It has given me a sisterhood. The friends I made in that group are very uplifting."
Their lives changed suddenly and dramatically after losing both parents within a year. For weeks, they thought they might have to move Kentucky to live with their mother's family. It was something neither of them wanted, but they said they had no control over the decision.
Ultimately they were allowed to stay in Daytona Beach. "I have my whole life here," Alexandria said.
Initially, they both moved in with their grandmother, Johnnie White, who lives in Daytona Beach's Midtown neighborhood. Sydney wound up not staying and is living at her best friend's house now a few blocks away.
Alexandria wishes she could move in with a friend, too. "I'm not happy at all about this," she said.
Sydney said Alexandria "has gotten angrier" since their parents died. Sydney is drawing on her religious faith for strength.
"The faith I have has been keeping me stable," Sydney said. Alexandria doesn't want to have anything to do with a relationship with a higher power. "The whole religious thing, I don't believe it anymore," she said.
She said she went to a church recently and couldn't stand being there. She fled the sanctuary and went to the bathroom.
They have a lot to recover from. They watched their parents' health deteriorate for a large portion of their childhood.
"It's given me a more realistic outlook on life," Sydney said. "I've become my own support system."
Going through the holidays without her parents is compounding Sydney's grief. She doesn't have a wish list for Santa.
"I don't ask for anything anymore to avoid disappointment," Sydney said. "I prefer to give for Christmas."
When pressed for what she would enjoy finding under a Christmas tree, she said she wouldn't turn down a gift card for Bath & Body Works or a Visa gift card.
Alexandria would love an iPhone along with a soft fleece blanket.
Maybe they'll also receive gifts that don't come in a box or gift bag. Maybe this will also be the Christmas their hearts start to heal, and smiling comes more easily.