Escape Artist

4

Published in Pegasus magazine, By Sarah Sekula

Sitting in front of a classroom of UCF LEAD Scholars, 27-year-old Lalita Booth looks like any other junior — sporting unassuming khaki-colored cargo pants, worn leather sandals, an oversized sweatshirt and a long ponytail of wavy, auburn locks still drying from her morning shower. The brown-eyed, freckle-faced student blends in with the roomful of her peers in every way.

That is, until she opens her mouth.

“You’re looking at the face of a child abuse survivor, a perpetual runaway, a high school dropout,” she says as idle chitchat turns to complete silence.

“I was a teenage mother, a homeless parent and a former welfare recipient.”

As jaws drop, she paints a vivid picture of her tumultuous past. Her parents divorced when she was young, by 12 she was a runaway pro — asking for permission to go somewhere and then simply not returning for a few days or weeks — and when discontent and anger intensified she took a month-long trip through several states by hitching rides with truckers.

After her spontaneous, vagabond-style trip, she never returned to high school and rarely showed her face at home either. Instead, she became proficient in “couch surfing” at friends’ homes. When there was no couch to crash on, the teen would take nightly refuge behind the closest dumpster and rest in the park during the day. “When you are 15 and alone, you don’t want the police or anyone else to notice you,” she says intensely.

In hindsight, she justifies her unconventional ways. “It wasn’t some sort of well thought-out decision to be a wild child,” she says. “It was the only way I knew to be. So I never really questioned it.”

Searching for Stability

To understand how it got to this point, where a 15-year-old was struggling to survive on the streets, you have to rewind to Booth’s early childhood. The whirlwind of instability rushed in when her parent’s Asheville, NC, home was foreclosed on, forcing her family to live a  nomadic lifestyle, hopping from town to town as evictions were slapped on the door or jobs were lost. “I’ve lived in 80 different homes in my 27 years,” she says. “I bounced around like a ping-pong ball.”

For Booth, it was a time filled with physical torment, emotional distress and utter loneliness. “Occasionally,” she says, “I just couldn’t be inside my house.” Struggling to clearly explain the feeling, she mentions it likely stems from events of abuse in her past, so traumatic that she can’t recall them today. “It’s been a pervasive thing throughout my life,” she says. Sitting at home for her was akin to cabin fever. And running away was a desperate attempt to keep her emotions at bay.

Her ramshackle plan: stay in constant motion and develop a “social family” of peers who were just as broke as she was financially and emotionally. She felt safe and happy with the ragtag team that would meet often at Vincent’s Ear, a little coffee shop in downtown Asheville.

“It was wonderful,” she recalls. “You could get a cup of coffee for 75 cents, sit for four hours, and they wouldn’t kick you out.” Other times the group would play chess or backgammon on concrete picnic tables at a nearby rundown courtyard or they’d hike the Blue Ridge Parkway and go berry picking or fishing. “If you exercise ingenuity,” she says, “it’s pretty easy to find things that don’t cost much that are entertaining.”

On Her Own

While the majority of her early years were haphazard, one notion always remained constant — Booth was rushing to become an adult. Maybe it was lessons from her older sister, who shared the same rebellious streak. Or maybe it was her defiant attitude. Nonetheless, at 16 she made a very grownup decision. As yelling matches with her parents worsened, her bond with peers grew stronger; so she played the ultimate teenage trump card — emancipation, or legal separation from her parents. “I was already living on my own,” she explains, “but I couldn’t sign a lease, couldn’t start building credit. So I hired an attorney, and my parents were served with a subpoena.”

Booth was free from parental confines, but before things could get better for the incorrigible teen, they got much worse. What should have been her wonder years were instead her welfare years.

Furthering her quest to be a grownup, at 17 she married her long-time buddy and fellow high-school-dropout, Quinn. “He made me feel very safe,” she says. “After having felt so alone, it meant a lot to me to have someone who would stand by me.”

Three months later, she found out she was pregnant with her son, Kieren. What normally would be a joyful time was instead a stressful one while the new couple struggled in a prison of deep poverty. Living in a tiny relic of an apartment in Asheville, Quinn brought home $800 a month while Booth stayed home to care for their gregarious, rambunctious, hungry infant. Rent gobbled up more than half their income and left little cash to feed and clothe the young family.

“Poverty is like a bubble that closes the realm of possibility around you,” she explains. “And there is simply no way out.”

Fortunately, the young couple qualified for a supplemental nutrition program which provided a stockpile of food each month. This meant four gallons of milk, three pounds of black beans and rice, several giant blocks of cheese, 10 pounds of potatoes — yet it all had to last 30 days. “Three meals a day was not something we could afford,” she explains. “We usually only had breakfast on Saturdays and Sundays.”

The miserable situation began to take its toll, and after just two and a half years of marriage, Quinn was ready to call it quits. However, they certainly couldn’t afford to file for divorce. Quinn instead enlisted in the military, left the country and withdrew financial support.

Flood Gates Open

Booth’s trickle of problems was now a full-fledged flood. Confronted with the realization that she was a stay-at-home mom with no professional skills, she knew that keeping her head above water would be a struggle. And while she attempted to find work, another major problem had crept into the picture – she was homeless.

“Things were fundamentally not working where I was,” she says. “The only thing you really can do if you don’t know what other variables to change is just to change everything. Try to eliminate every variable that could possibly be posing a problem.”

The escape artist in her prevailed again. With her new boyfriend, Carl, and

her most precious cargo, Kieren, in tow, Booth fled to Boulder, CO, one of the few places from her childhood — with its mix of dreadlocked college folk, eclectic coffee shops, a greenbelt of trails and open spaces and the ever present Rocky Mountain backdrop — that brought back happy memories.

But it was a city that didn’t come cheap. Bad credit made it nearly impossible to rent an apartment, and Booth, without a car, couldn’t find a job nearby. To make matters worse, child care was four times more expensive in Boulder than in Asheville.

And so, she made a decision no parent should have to make: She gave her son away. Kieren was shuffled over to his paternal grandparents’ house for seven months while Lalita and Carl attempted to get back on their feet. “I slept with his T-shirt every night,” she said. “I just couldn’t give up on being somebody who would make him proud.”

Time away from her 2-year-old was devastating, however, being in Colorado proved to be fruitful for the 21-year-old, starting with an interesting job opportunity as an enrolled agent, an expert in U.S. taxation who can represent taxpayers before the Internal Revenue Service. She could acquire the license without further schooling. Better yet, it would boost her income to $32,000. She buckled down and read all 4,000 pages of the study guide and, thanks to her near photographic memory, she aced the test. Another key to climbing out of poverty: She set up a complimentary session with a financial planner, mapping out exactly how to make ends meet.

Finally, her life was stable; she was feeling all the early signs of contentment. But, once again, she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Carl’s brother in Orlando was very ill, and he needed to move to Florida. “It was a very difficult choice,” she says. “But I wanted to keep our family together. I cried all the way out of the state of Colorado. In giving that up, I thought, I better make something exceptional of the life I create.”

The Turning Point

The young family settled into an apartment in Sanford, and Booth began the job search, hoping to be an enrolled agent again, but reluctantly taking a minimum-wage job at Winn-Dixie when that didn’t pan out. Then came the ugly realization that if Carl left her, she would be right back where she started when Quinn retreated. “I would be sleeping in my car and surfing from couch to couch again,” she says.

The only way to ensure her independence was to do something that frightened her to the very core — go back to school. At 23, Booth had taken a hiatus from academia for seven years. The gaping holes in her education — she missed fifth grade altogether and dropped out of high school at 16 — were not something she could escape.

But Kieren, then 4 years old, served as her constant inspiration. “The old adage that your child will do as you do, not as you say, is very true,” she says. “If this were him in this situation, what would I want him to do?”

She knew the answer. And soon after, she enrolled at Seminole Community College. Finally, she was in the right place at the right time. “It was opportunity,” she says. “It was the chance to be something different.” She giggles when she says most people probably thought she was incredibly bizarre; she was so thrilled to be reuniting with academia, she would sit in the library and smell the books.

And she thrived. Where high school classes never met her craving for intellectual stimuli, college classes embraced her like an old acquaintance. College was her new haven, cozy and controlled.

In May 2005, Booth was selected to attend the Salzburg Global Seminar, where she brainstormed ways to solve global problems with a group of international students. That trip to Austria proved to be a life-changing one. “We were coming from Munich, taking the train,” she remembers wistfully. “It was surreal. For so many years it was, ‘How am I going to scrounge up enough for Ramen noodles?’ It was such a far cry from that desperate poverty.”

The thought-provoking trip led her to her mission: help others escape the chokehold of poverty. Although she didn’t know how or when, Booth knew she would dedicate her life to this quest. “That drive to make a difference,” she says, “has been what I’ve eaten, slept and breathed for the past three years.”

Back in the states, Booth’s world became even more dream-like when she won the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Scholarship, one of the largest and most competitive scholarships available to undergraduates in America, which whisked away $30,000 worth of bills, books and tuition each year. Now, she could focus purely on studies, devoting her time to the Phi Theta Kappa international scholastic honors society, Brain Bowl, the debate team and literary writing.

Things were looking up. In the meantime, ideas were percolating for her “life mission.”

Daring to Dream

These days, Booth’s growing academic momentum sees no bounds. With 135 credit hours to her name and a 4.0 GPA to boot, she couldn’t be more pleased. As a junior at UCF — double majoring in finance and accounting — she’s continuing to make up for lost time.

So far so good. In March, she became the only UCF student ever to capture the elusive Harry S. Truman Scholarship, one of the nation’s most prestigious public policy awards, which provide recipients $30,000 toward graduate studies. Not surprisingly, she also is a member of the UCF Order of Pegasus, the highest honor that the university bestows upon students.

To top it off, she founded Lighthouse for Dreams, a financial literacy program aimed at educating and empowering high school students. “I have lived the reality that I’m trying to change for so many people,” she says. “Because I’ve been in those situations, I have a window of insight into what causes the problem and how to go about fixing it.”

Beyond her high school outreach program, Booth has interned with state and U.S. lawmakers to improve Florida’s financial literacy laws and reform welfare’s work restrictions — two major policy concerns she knows about first hand. She teaches financial literacy to Junior Achievement students, and her thesis is being reviewed by President Bush’s Literacy Task Force and will likely be published in the near future.

“If you’re looking for someone who will change the world for the better,” says Jim Gilkeson, UCF associate professor of finance, “I believe that you have found her.”

Meanwhile, it seems as if her childhood pipe dream of attending Harvard Law School may come true. By the looks of her apartment, it is quite apparent she’s doing more than crossing her fingers. The white walls in her family room, the ceiling light above the kitchen counter and the closet are all punctuated with dozens of yellow Post-it Notes, each indicating a new fact she wants to commit to memory. A How to Get into Harvard book sits on the toilet tank, and GRE study guides line the top of the fish aquarium. “I’m never more than 20 feet away from a book,” she says. “I try to keep reading material everywhere.”

Booth strongly believes, and for good reason, “things that are worth achieving are absolutely unreasonable,” she says. “Set unreasonable goals and chase them unreasonably.”

A Rich Life

Although she’s rebounded from poverty, she says she’s still prone to buying 10-pound bags of potatoes, hand-stitching her own brightly-colored pillows or shucking pomegranates to make her own wine. The main difference in her life now: Every choice she makes is a calculated one. She spends 20-plus hours a week studying for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), so she can score at least 171 out of 180. Soon after, she’ll tackle the GRE in hopes of also being accepted into the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Equally as important, she passes on her intellect on to her shaggy haired 8-year-old, who is the lead singer in a neighborhood band and anxious to attend SCC, UCF and Harvard to study electrical engineering.

As she flips through a photo album, packed with snapshots of her young pregnancy, her low-key Asheville apartment and her lifelong friends, Booth says she wouldn’t change anything in her past. “It could potentially alter who I am today,” she says emphatically.

And at this point, there is nothing left to escape. She is exactly where she wants to be.