Kiara Walker is the mother of a six-month-old girl and the owner of a car, recently-acquired, that only chooses to start on some mornings. Walker is also a 21-year-old student at Hillsborough Community College - Ybor City Campus, pursuing a degree in counseling and human service. She wants to be a drug abuse treatment counselor and, ultimately, to start her own non-profit organization to help young women in need.
Sometimes those two facets of Walker's life don't exactly work in harmony. When your car breaks down or your only baby-sitter is sick, it's a ready-made excuse to miss class, let your work slide, even give up on your dreams.
Walker, however, is not one to give up, a fact the Tampa Bay Buccaneers quickly recognized when they read her life story. As a result, the Buccaneers have chosen to help Walker stay on her "Road to Success."
In 2009, the Buccaneers were looking for several new ways to focus their community outreach efforts. One simple but potentially very impactful idea quickly gained traction: Locate a hard-working citizen whose life could be significantly improved with the addition of a new car, and fill that void.
The "Road to Success" program was born, and late in '09 the Buccaneers began accepting nominations on-line for the most deserving recipient. Walker's tale - which included her own troubled birth to a drug-addicted mother, an incarcerated father, numerous changes in her family situation and her own young child who suffers from an irregular heartbeat - was the one chosen from 180 applicants.
And so on Tuesday morning, as she exited her Sociology class onto 9th Avenue in Ybor City, Walker suddenly found herself staring at a brand new Ford Focus decked out in Bucs-colored balloons and the ubiquitous big bow on the hood. Her Ford Focus.
Walker, who talks a lot and peppers her words with uplifting mantras for both herself and those around her - "It's all a learning process; if you don't learn you're not living" - was briefly speechless. Once she understood the magnitude of the gift, she was deeply grateful.
"This helps me a lot," said Walker. "It shows me there's opportunity in life. It's just about opening your mouth and going out there and getting what you want. Nothing can stop you in life, whether it's a car or a job. Just get out there and do it. It helps to have people who support you. And then returning the favor is important, helping out as many people as you can.
"You should never give up, regardless of whether you're catching a bus or a cab, walking, riding with a friend, whatever. I give up some days, because I'm human, but then I push harder."
Walker only briefly acquired a car and, as mentioned, it was old and unreliable. The white Focus she'll now be driving is brand new, spotless, equipped with a new baby seat for her daughter, Kaylen Ariana, and completely paid for. In fact, the Buccaneers handled all aspects of the purchase - tax, title and registration - and also arranged to cover six months of auto insurance and a full year's worth of gas.
Everything Walker needs, in other words, to keep chasing her very worthwhile dreams.
Head Coach Raheem Morris and Bucs players Demar Dotson and Chris Pressley were on hand for the unveiling of the new car. Morris, whose own community outreach programs have centered on education, discussed how this simple yet important gift fits into such efforts.
"We had a bunch of great stories sent in for Road to Success," said Morris. "We always talk about education being our main initiative, and this is another way to help people strive for their goals and get their education. We're talking about a great student here with a great story, someone who's been able to fight through it and be productive."
Indeed, Walker's story was particularly inspirational because she has not let her transportation disadvantages keep her from striving for her goals. In fact, she found about her new car immediately after acing a Sociology exam. Her professor for the class, Joan Tucker, admitted that Walker's difficulties with her car and daughter have kept her from attending a handful of sessions this semester, but said that the young student has found other ways to keep up.
"She has had a lot of challenges - with transportation, with a young child - and she isn't able to make every class," said Tucker. "However, that hasn't been an excuse for her not to do her work. She's scoring better on the exams than people who are there for every class. She's keeping up. Sometimes students who are going through challenges use it as an excuse to not do their work. She finds a way to get it done, so I'm proud of her."
The organization Walker hopes to found at some point in the future would help other young women stay focused on their goals. Walker used to volunteer at a group home, and she encountered many young women who had dreams such as attending college but not enough support to make it happen. Sometimes, said Walker, it takes a group.
It also takes drive to stay on that road to success. Walker clearly has that, and now she also has a little help. A representative from State Farm was on hand to immediately draw up Walker's new insurance policy, the Bucs were ready with her first month's gas card and two folks from Brandon Ford were standing by to take her to the dealership and make the transfer official.
By Tuesday afternoon, Walker would be driving her own brand new car. It shouldn't be difficult to get back to campus on Wednesday. Walker wasn't surprised that her efforts to improve her own lot had resulted in such a sudden change in her circumstances.
"You have to see outside your current situation," said Walker. "This isn't my life, it's my situation. I go through things just like everybody else. I feel like you have to take it in stride, take it one day at a time and focus on your goals. Set your goals and then focus on them. You may not be able to touch them, but you can see them and so you work towards them. I want to make a difference not only for myself but for my child and my cousins and brothers and sisters and my family."
Click here for a gallery of Walker's special moment.