When Lis Casanova approached us about an internship this past summer, we sensed something special. She learned quickly, didn't need "managing" and made our lives easier.
Partway through her internship, we learned that not only was she an exceptional intern, she was an exceptional human. When she was 2, doctors diagnosed her with nephrotic syndrome, which affected her kidneys. Seven years later, her family fled Cuba and rebuilt their lives in Florida. Ten years after that, a complicated set of family circumstances left her homeless. She tried desperately to finish high school and keep her homelessness a secret from the school, only to be discovered when a counselor grew suspicious at the rate at which she changed her address.
That counselor got her into a program called Starting Right Now (SRN), which helped her find a home and get to school — and made sure she had help with college, too. Lis admitted to us she almost lost it all — "I let every possible thing that could bring me down do so," she wrote this summer. She turned it around, and this December, she'll graduate with a BA in English and Writing Studies.
She interned with CL because she wanted to be an editor. We wanted to keep her, but alas, that's not the nature of interns. But all future interns will get measured against the "Casanova Scale" of how great they are (no pressure, future interns) because an organization is lucky to find someone who can give of themselves with no regard to pay.
The Tampa Bay Lightning recognized that in her, too.
At the Nov. 4 game the Lightning designated her a Lightning Community Hero of Tomorrow, which comes with a $50,000 grant.
She applied for the grant in partnership with Mika Nelson, director of Pinellas’s public libraries, with the idea of expanding the African American Heritage and Culture collection at the James Weldon Johnson library branch. Nelson told her about another library initiative, Create 2 Innovate Lab, which will combine literacy with art to help foster literacy levels in south St. Pete. So Lis added that to the grant, too. Here's the writeup with all the details.
Working on the grant project has changed the focus of Lis’s future.
"This experience has really steered me into continuing to work for the community, writing from within a nonprofit or being hands on," she says. While she still has aspirations of editing, "for now, I'm open to both because I know that I'll be able to help the community in either way."
As for the remaining $25,000? It will help pay for Lis’s education. Although Florida law provides tuition waivers for homeless students, she still had to pay for room and board — and any other living expenses.
"I owe about $16-$17,000 in student loans, plus I have some other small debts on my credit so I'm clearing all of those first and foremost."
"I'm going to hold tight onto the rest because I don't know how quickly I'll get a good job," she says, "Or even one that covers all of my bills comfortably. I'm hoping on putting the rest in a savings account for any emergency or for graduate school if I decide to do that in a couple of years."
Congrats, Lis! Tampa Bay Lightning, you have chosen wisely.
Cathy Salustri is the arts and entertainment editor for CL Tampa. Contact her here.