Nerissa Alcindor has always had big expectations for herself, even in the most dire of circumstances.
Ever since she was a baby, Alcindor was moved in and out of foster care, and later, bounced from friends’ homes, hotels and shelters to keep a roof over her head. At 17, she found herself completely on her own, facing steep barriers to graduating high school, acquiring a job or even renting an apartment.
With the help of nonprofit Casa Valentina, she accomplished all of those milestones plus her biggest dream of all: attending cosmetology school.
“To this day, I’m shocked that I really fulfilled that dream,” Alcindor, 19, said in an interview in her new backyard at the Casa Valentina complex where she and about 11 other young women receive affordable housing, academic support and other training for various life skills.
In April 2021 Alcindor got involved with the organization, which was founded in 2006 to assist at-risk and former foster care youth with safe housing and help navigating services as they age out of the system.
She entered the program during a rocky time spent struggling with homelessness. In her short time at Casa Valentina, Alcindor earned her high school diploma and became one of the youngest students in the cosmetology program at The English Center in Coral Gables, which is part of Miami Dade Technical Colleges System.
Casa Valentina nominated Alcindor for Wish Book to help her in her journey to getting her cosmetology license and someday opening her own salon. Donations of Sally’s Beauty gift cards or salon shadowing opportunities would help Alcindor purchase necessary materials for her beauty classes and develop her skills into a career as a stylist.
Alcindor has been interested in beauty — especially hair — since she was a child, always asking for dolls so she could practice different haircuts and styles. But developing an obsession into a career was an uphill battle for the Miami native, who has been on her own since she was 17.
While she was attending high school she lived with a friend for a brief time, and later spent three months living at a hotel until a toilet overflowed, flooded the room and soaked all of her belongings. She had never wanted to seek help at a shelter, but this time she did, telling herself: “You got to go through this so you can get where you want to be.”
It was around that time that things started to turn around for the teen. She got a job at a hotel in Miami Beach and told her counselor at North Park High School in Opa-locka about her living situation. The counselor connected Alcindor with Casa Valentina, where she was able to get resources and shelter. She now pays subsidized rent for a private apartment at one of Casa Valentina’s residential buildings and participates in meetings and training to ensure she has the skills to move forward once she leaves the program.
In June, months after moving to Casa Valentina, Alcindor graduated from high school, a milestone she says she always believed “was not meant to be.”
Alcindor now works the front desk at the Fortune House Hotel in Brickell from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., then takes an Uber or catches a ride to Coral Gables for cosmetology class, which starts at 8. After class breaks around 3 p.m., she goes back to her apartment to eat, study and sleep until it’s time to work again. She “always has the book open’” during the overnight shifts at the hotel, and says she is consistently earning As and Bs on her assignments and tests.
It’s a hectic schedule, she admits, but it’s all part of her plan to finish the program in December 2022 and work toward a goal of opening her own salon. The hotel job helps her pay her rent and buy the supplies and products she needs for school, where she is expected to provide her own products to perform hair, nails and facial services.
“I know I want to be a celebrity stylist,” she said. “Just like I said, I wanted my own house. I got it. I graduated. I am going to be a celebrity stylist, I just know it. I want to be big.”
HOW TO HELP
Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year. To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook. For information, call 305-376-2906 or email [email protected]. (The most requested items are often laptops and tablets for school, furniture, and accessible vans.) Read more at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook.