The things that drive Kiara Lynn Garcia are dark: her father deported, an uncle shot dead, money worries that color things at home.

But Kiara's presence is all light: a sunny smile that warms her whole face, a bubbling curiosity and love of learning, a bone-sure determination that her current circumstances will not dictate her future.

"She's got a lot of gifts to unleash on the world," said Ann-Therese Ortiz, a mentor who has known Kiara for four years.

Currently, the 12th grader at Kensington High School for Creative and Performing Arts is all in on a project she conceived and is executing largely on her own: a flea market to raise money for her classmates' senior-year expenses. Many students don't have the cash for things like yearbooks and prom and a graduation cap and gown.

So Kiara, who will likely study business at Millersville University - the first in her family to attend college - has knocked on doors, made phone calls, blasted on social media, and asked everyone she can think of for help. She already has met her fund-raising goal of $1,000.

She still owes $50 on her own $250 class dues, and forget about buying any of her senior portraits - those were way out of reach.

But the money she nets won't go to pay her own way - it's for others, she says.

"I wanted to do something big, something not just for me," she said.

That's how Kiara operates.

Born and raised in Kensington, Kiara was 10 when her father was deported to the Dominican Republic. Soon after, her older brother entered the juvenile justice system. Her grandmother was diagnosed with cancer, and an uncle, who had gotten into drugs, was murdered. Her mother fell into a depression.

"That all plays a big part in who I am," she said.

She attended middle school at Conwell, a Philadelphia School District magnet, but a neighborhood high school was her only option.

"My mom didn't want me to go to a faraway school," Kiara said. "She didn't know much about the different schools, and she didn't want me on public transportation."

The family - Kiara, her mother, and her twin brother, a senior at Edison High - lives on assistance and disability checks that come because her mother is too ill to work. Some days, it's a struggle to pay for food, Kiara said.

Driven and joyful

But Kiara always finds work-arounds. She worked at a local clothing store for several years, until classes and college applications took up too much of her time.

If things are especially tight, she'll sell candy, cold drinks, or lighters to the smokers in her neighborhood.

"My mom says: 'You don't sleep enough! You do too many things,' " she said.

Philadelphia Futures, a nonprofit that helps promising low-income students with intensive college preparation, has been key, not just with guidance and moral support, but also in paying for things like the two classes she's taking this semester at Community College of Philadelphia.

Futures' staffers love Kiara.

Ortiz, its director of precollege programs, marvels at Kiara's sense of hopefulness.

"When I think of driven, I think of a kid who's serious and so tunnel-vision, but she's driven and joyful and warm," Ortiz said. "That combination is rare."

Pride and love

Debora Carrera, KCAPA's principal for Kiara's first three years of high school and now a district assistant superintendent, admires the teen's resilience and focus.

"She is so sincere in all that she does, from projects to help those in need to advocating for student rights," Carrera said. "I am proud of her and love her tons, and she knows it."

Kiara loves school, but there's no denying the last few years have been tough with the School District's deep budget cuts. KCAPA, for instance, is now a performing arts school with no dance teacher. It has had four principals this school year. School climate has suffered.

When Kiara first floated the flea-market idea, teachers were skeptical, she said.

How would she have enough time, enough connections, enough promotional skills?

"If people say it's impossible, that makes me want to do it even more," Kiara said.

On a recent day, speed-walking through CCP's main building on her way to the library, Kiara spotted a bulletin board and paused for a minute, pulling a flea-market flier out of her book bag and tacking it to the center. She seizes every opportunity to promote "Raise Tigers," her name for the event.

She's working with a budget of zero.

But with the flea market, as with her life in general, "I'm not going to let my lack of resources stop me," she said.


The way she sees it, there aren't enough bright spots in her peers' worlds.

"I don't think we get enough of those positive things," she said, "but we all deserve senior-year memories."

Once stricken with stage fright, Kiara now speaks easily in public. She's involved with the student organizing group Youth United for Change, and a member of Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.'s student roundtable panel, and has often spoken on big stages on behalf of the two groups.

She loves community work and motivating people, and feels as if both of those things fit into her future somehow. Millersville seems to her a good fit, in part because getting out of Kensington is a goal.

"I don't feel I live in a neighborhood that's supportive of me going to college," she said. "My family is, but what if I had to do a 10-page paper? There's so many distractions."

At community college, where she's taking two English courses this semester, one staffer said she was surprised Kiara had tested out of the basic writing course.

Kiara is not cocky, but she knows her worth.

She told the staffer, "I'm not the usual."

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